AMES — What a difference 16 days can make.
On February 9, after letting a double-digit lead slip away before halftime in an eventual 94-83 loss at No. 17 Oklahoma, Iowa State’s hopes of grinding out at least a share of its first Big 12 regular season crown since 2001 seemed dim.
Then came Monday’s Kansas State resurrection — a startling revival that led to the once-floundering Wildcats’ 70-63 upset of league-leading Kansas.
Naz Long and his Cyclone teammates might not have seen it coming (who did?), but plans were made to watch the game unfold and cheer on the underdog.
“As soon as practice is done, I’m waiting until that tip-off happens,” Long said before Monday’s practice. “I’m right on it. We’re going to be watching that game.”
Now No. 12 ISU can go from watching to simply doing.
The Cyclones (20-6, 10-4) are tied with the No. 8 Jayhawks (22-6, 11-4) in the loss column, but must maintain their “win out” approach as No. 19 Baylor (20-7, 8-6) rolls into Ames for Wednesday’s pivotal 8 p.m. clash at Hilton Coliseum.
Job one: Dissect the Bears’ often onerous zone defense, while not getting rolled on the glass.
Job two: Maintain a renewed defensive intensity that has allowed ISU to limit three of its past five foes to 41 percent shooting or worse.
“We’ve had much better shot selection on the road these past couple (wins over Oklahoma State and Texas),” said Cyclone coach Fred Hoiberg, whose team has never lost to Baylor (12-0) at Hilton. “Our execution down the stretch has been really good. getting stops when we need them at the end of games has been crucial to get those two road wins. You have to have that.”
And they have to have this.
ISU proudly carries a 21-game home win streak into Wednesday’s game and has apparently found a way to consistently emerge from the valley of the shadow of adversity with its collective confidence in tact.
“I think when you really hit that adversity like we hit at Oklahoma, where we had a double digit lead in the first half and then did not handle that adversity well, that was a great learning moment our our team,” Hoiberg said. “I give our guys credit for finding a way to get better from that. Two things can happen: it gets better, it gets worse. And for our guys, it’s definitely gotten better.”
To keep those good vibes coming, the Cyclones need to continue lighting it up from outside.
That’s where the zone comes in. ISU has taken care of the 3-point shooting aspect in the past four meetings against Baylor, shooting no worse than 40 percent from beyond the arc in the most recent four meetings.
“I definitely get a little more happy when I see a zone,” Long said. “That’s not a secret.”
Torrid 3-point shooting combined with forcing 19 turnovers allowed the Cyclones to easily handle Baylor last year at home, 87-72. ISU then hit 10 of 19 from long range — including Long’s 5-for-5 effort — in this year’s meeting at Waco to crawl out of a deep hole. The Cyclones inched in front late, until Kenny Chery’s last-second jumper resulted in a 74-73 loss.
“That hurt,” Long said.
It’s all smiles now — even with a double-double machine such as Rico Gathers standing tall and wide in the paint, and dangerous scorers such as Chery, Taurean Prince, Lester Medford and Royce O’Neale populating the Bears’ lineup.
Cliché or not, the Cyclones control their own destiny when it comes to the title chase.
And, again, that zone may be coming at just the right time. ISU is shooting 44 percent from 3-point range in the past four games — and has nailed 18 of 34 from long distance in the past two games against Baylor.
“When we faced them the first time they really extended, but I think if we get the ball in the middle a lot of good things can happen,” said ISU’s Matt Thomas, who has drained six of his last 12 from 3-point range. “We’ve gotten a lot of lobs to Jameel (McKay) on teams that play zone against us. So with Georges (Niang) inside, he’s such a good passer, we’ll have kick outs for 3s as well.”
A recipe for a third straight win and a first-place tie? We’ll see.
“I think all of us are believing in each other and really coming together at the right time and clicking,” Niang said. “I think that’s huge for us at this point of our season. I’d rather have it now than way earlier in the year.”
KENPOM.COM SAYS …
ISU’s likelihood of winning Wednesday is pegged at 64 percent. Projected score: 76-72.