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Basketball

WILLIAMS: Five thoughts on Iowa State’s win at Texas

Game changer

After Iowa State defeated West Virginia at home last Saturday by 20, head coach Fred Hoiberg talked at length about how he couldn’t wait for his team to go on the road for its next two at Oklahoma State and Texas. Hoiberg saw the challenging upcoming week as one giant opportunity for his team that at the time was a longshot to win the Big 12’s regular season title. 

Coming off of an impressive win in Stillwater on Wednesday, Iowa State (20-6, 10-4) gritted its teeth, flexed its muscles, went 12-of-21 from 3-point range (its most efficient mark of the season) and topped the Texas Longhorns, 85-77 on Saturday afternoon. 

The win secured Iowa State’s fourth 20-win season in a row for the first time in program history.

With four games left in the regular season, the Cyclones are only a game behind Kansas in the standings and a Big 12 championship is very much within reach.

The surging Cyclones will host Baylor on Wednesday (8 p.m. on ESPNU).

What to watch for: Kansas, obviously. Iowa State needs not only take care of its own business but for the Jayhawks to lose as well. 

The Cyclones and Jayhawks split this year so as a quick refresher, here’s what is next as far as the Big 12’s tiebreaker system goes when it comes to seeing for the conference tournament: Each team’s record vs. the team occupying the highest position in the final regular-season standings, and then continuing down through the standings until one team gains an advantage. When arriving at another group of tied teams while comparing records, use each team’s record against the collective tied teams as a group (prior to that group’s own tie-breaking procedure), rather than the performance against individual tied teams.

What’s that mean? Assuming that Oklahoma finishes third in the league (and that Iowa State defeats Oklahoma at home on March 2 and the Sooners beat Kansas in Norman), root for West Virginia to claim the fourth spot. The Mountaineers recently defeated Kansas (last Monday) and Iowa State swept Bob Huggins’ team this season. 

Tip of that hat…to Fred Hoiberg

After the game, I got a great text from CF owner Jason Loutsch after the game that read: “When are people going to start talking about Fred in the National Coach of the Year conversation? Lose two All-Americans and have a top 10 team with a chance to win the Big 12.”

That’s a fantastic point. 

Melvin Ejim and DeAndre Kane were kind of good, you know?

What we’re all witnessing right now is a vintage Hoiberg coaching job. 

In every season he’s been Iowa State’s leader, from November to mid-February, the Cyclones have steadily climbed up a hill and gotten to the top come March and just like last year, this is a team that is peaking at the perfect time.

Body language

Hoiberg is a master chess player when it comes to manipulating his roster but there comes a time in the season when he can only do so much. Eventually, guys have to buy in to what he is preaching and suddenly this team has done just that. 

If you have old Cyclone games on your DVR from earlier this season, watch Bryce Dejean-Jones’ body language in early January compared to now. He’s bought into the sixth-man role and is a completely different guy. He’s smiling out there.

From Georges Niang to Matt Thomas (more on him soon) to Dustin Hogue (who is somehow a 44 percent 3-point shooter on the season), every player on the roster understands his role and collectively, you’re seeing the results on the scoreboard.

Patience pays for Matt Thomas

There is a reason why despite his struggles, Hoiberg has continued to play sophomore shooting guard Matt Thomas consistently this season. Day in and day out, insiders tell me that the Wisconsin native is lights out in practice. As Niang put it in his postgame interview on the Cyclone Radio Network, Thomas is one of the hardest working guys on the team and within the program, the belief is there that this kid can play ball at an extremely high level.

Against Texas, Thomas scored a career-high 17 against Texas while going 4-of-6 from 3-point range in 21 minutes of action. It was damn good to see.

“I was getting great looks tonight,” Thomas told the Voice of the Cyclones John Walters after the game. “They really collapsed in on our drives and obviously they are really big inside so the kicks were wide open.”

Dating back to Jan. 26, Thomas had only made a combined three 3-pointers during that stretch. Throughout the slump, Thomas kept grinding.

“Hard work always pays off,” Thomas said. “Sometimes it takes longer than you want but hard work always pays off. I’m going to continue to work and will hopefully have the same success.”

Based off of production alone, I totally understand why fans would question Thomas still getting the minutes he’s seen over the last month but with Hoiberg’s track record, this truly is a case where it is best just to trust the coach. 

It’s no secret that Thomas is a bit of a mental player and hopefully Saturday’s career-high will give him the confidence needed to finally fully turn that corner.

No more road talk

Iowa State now has road wins at Iowa, West Virginia, Oklahoma State and Texas.

Enough said. 

I fully anticipated Iowa State’s RPI to climb into the top 10 after this week and with that an NCAA Tournament two-seed (in a crazy world, potentially a No. 1) is still very much in reach. 

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