AMES — ISU coach Fred Hoiberg saw his players’ heads nodding. They shared supportive, not cross words with each other as the going got tough Wednesday at Oklahoma State. Hands readily met for fist bumps and high fives from start to finish, up and down the sideline.
“The thing I liked best about that game was just how engaged everybody was, whether they were on the floor or whether they were on the bench,” said Hoiberg, whose 14th-ranked team used a 9-0 run to corral the No. 22 Cowboys, 70-65, at Stillwater.
In short, Hoiberg’s latest attempt at basketball ego alchemy has taken full effect — and the potential future ramifications are obvious.
The Cyclones (19-6, 9-4) enter Saturday’s tough 1 p.m. matchup at Texas (17-9, 6-7) one game behind 10-time defending regular season Big 12 champion Kansas in the standings.
A second straight road win against a puzzling, but nonetheless strong, skilled and deep Longhorns team would put the Jayhawks on notice that defending conference tournament champion ISU’s in this for the long haul.
“For sure,” said Cyclone point guard Monté Morris, who Friday was named one of 17 finalists for the Bob Cousy Award. “We’ve just got to win out and see where the chips fall after that.”
The fact that Morris used the word “just” to precede the term “win out” speaks to his iron-clad sense of confidence.
But first things first. Texas appeared headed for its fourth straight win last Monday, but blew a late eight-point lead in a 71-69 loss at No. 17 Oklahoma.
The Longhorns have — based on preseason expectations and the talent peppering their roster — underachieved dramatically to this point and need to finish strong to fully cement an NCAA Tournament bid.
That makes them “hungry,” as ISU big man Jameel McKay said Thursday. It also makes them dangerous, but the formula to limit the game-changing impact of stars such as Myles Turner and Isaiah Taylor hasn’t deviated from the past.
“It’s the same thing, you’ve got to do a good job on the boards and you’ve got to try to crack back on those guys,” said Hoiberg, whose team withstood a bold Texas charge to win 89-86 on Jan. 21 in Ames. “Turner is playing like the all-American I think we all knew he would be, with the confidence he’s playing with. Taylor is as fast with the ball in his hands as anybody in the country. (Javan) Felix hitting shots — (Jonathan) Holmes can play three or four, so a really versatile lineup and they’re playing well.”
Taylor’s been struggling lately, hitting just five of his last 22 shots, but he scored 16 in the previous meeting. As he’s cooled, Turner — the league’s best shot blocker at 3.0 per game — has heated up, notching double-doubles in each of the last two games (25 and 12, 17 and 10).
“It’s going to be a difficult game on Saturday,” Hoiberg summed up.
But aren’t they all? Six of the Cyclones’ nine Big 12 wins have come by six points or fewer and two of their four losses have come by five or less
The key to pulling out most of those games rests in that chemistry ISU’s managed to blend harmoniously in recent years — sometimes early, almost always late.
“We found ourselves,” forward Georges Niang said of Wednesday’s team-wide resolve. “I feel like on the road we tended to be a little more negative when adversity hit.”
Not that night, when the Cyclones pulled together to halt a four-game road slide. And not, it’s hoped, on Saturday, either.
“Our main focus was just to go in there and try to hush the critics,” Morris said. “We read a lot of stuff that says we’re good at home, but we can’t win on the road. You can’t do anything but respect it until we were able to go out there and show everybody. So like I said, we got our mojo back and we know how to win on the road now.”