AMES — They grinded. They competed. They eagerly accepted the coaching aimed at correcting their latest shortcomings.
Iowa State’s players did all of the above so well Wednesday that as practice ended, Cyclone coach Fred Hoiberg surprised them with these words:
“Let’s go bowling.”
No kidding. "Everybody laughed,” point guard Monté Morris said.
And? “We competed over there, too,” he added with a grin.
Hoiberg’s both played and coached this game at the highest levels. He gets it. A long season can lead to what he called “mental fatigue.” Tight cohesion can slacken a bit.
So he rounded up his guys and they hit the lanes at nearby Perfect Games in an effort to chip away at the monotony in advance of Saturday’s 3 p.m. Big 12 game between the No. 14 Cyclones (17-6, 7-4) and No. 21 West Virginia (18-5, 7-4) at Hilton Coliseum.
“It was sort-of bizarre,” said ISU forward Georges Niang, who leads his team in scoring at 14.9 points per game. “We were practicing and then he was like, ‘OK, let’s get out of here. We’re going bowling.’ We all just looked at each other like, “all right.” But I thought it was good. Definitely had a lot of fun and definitely took our mind off a little stressing over basketball. I think we’re ready to get back after it.”
It pays to be fresh in both mind and body against the pressure-oriented Mountaineers, who seek to avenge a 74-72 loss to the Cyclones in Morgantown on Jan. 10.
ISU committed a season-high 18 turnovers in that game, but reserve guard/forward Abdel Nader hit all six of his free throws in the final five minutes to help his team hang on.
“Press Virginia, is that what they’re called?” Niang joked. “That’s what makes them tough. You really can’t simulate what they do because it’s just so random and run and jump. Those guys are so gritty. You have to give them credit for that. They’re going to try to come in and out-tough you and at home you just can’t let that happen because if you do you could be stuck down to the wire with that team.”
So the Cyclones returned to working on their sometimes porous defense today in hopes of creating a consistently stingy approach on that end of the floor in the wake of Monday’s 94-83 loss at No. 17 Oklahoma.
“We’ve shown flashes,” Hoiberg said.
Just not often enough, or in long enough stretches.
“I feel like it’s up and down,” Morris said. “I feel like when we have a rough defensive game, the next game we come out and the defense is at a whole other level, just like two Saturday’s ago when we played at home against Texas Tech. That might have been our best defensive game of the year. I just feel like it’s up and down and we’re just trying to get on a straight path. So Saturday we’ll be a good defensive team because that’s been our focuses these last few practices.”
That and bowling, which served as a well-timed diversion from the primary tasks and objectives.
“You just have to have the right balance, where they don’t get mentally checked out,” Hoiberg said. “When you hit some tough times, when the adversity sets in, sometimes you have to have a balance as a coach on what you want to do with your team to keep them motivated and keep them going. We’ve got a lot of season left. We’ve got a lot of good times left. We’re 7-4. We’re in third place in our league. There’s some things we need to correct, there’s no doubt about that. But the world didn’t come to an end. The sky didn’t fall apart after the last game.
"We lost to a team in Oklahoma that’s beat five straight league opponents by double figures and we lost at Kansas and in stretches of both those games we were clearly the better team. But when the adversity hit us, we didn’t handle it well. So that’s what it’s about. Correcting, moving forward and trying to get a good 40 minutes of basketball.”
In other words, it’s time to rack ‘em up and knock ‘em down. Again.
“I feel like it was much needed — just to get away from dribbling a basketball and bonding with your teammates on a whole different level of things,” Morris said.