AMES — “Outstanding.”
That’s how ESPN analyst Jay Bilas chose to describe ISU guard Matt Thomas‘s defense on Oklahoma star Buddy Hield during Monday’s scintillating 82-77 win over the top-ranked Sooners.
That’s not hyperbole.
Granted, Hield sank a couple clutch 3-pointers after Bilas made that proclamation during the broadcast, but as Cyclones star forward Georges Niang said post-victory, “the numbers speak for themselves.”
Hield needed 23 shots to score 27 points. At least a half-dozen of those points came when Thomas wasn’t solely guarding him — and two of Hield’s late 3-pointers were made possible by high ball screens few would be able to fight through.
“It was exhausting, for sure,” Thomas said of containing Hield for the second time this season. “I’m pretty beat right now, but it feels great getting the win. Buddy’s a great player and I had a lot of help from my teammates just being in gaps and helping me out, but I just tried to make things tough on him, take him out of his rhythm and make him uncomfortable out there.”
“He did a good job,” Hield conceded. “It was a good battle.”
Thomas excelled in staying in front of Hield, working his feet to stave off lightning-quick drives while remaining locked in on ankle-bending hesitation moves.
Hield scored nine of the Sooners’ first 11 points, then went cold for about 20 minutes before shining down the stretch.
Thomas said effectively guarding elite offensive players such as Hield stems from intense and unyielding effort — a quality he built in the offseason through draining, but valuable drills.
“It’s huge for me,” Thomas said of his burgeoning reputation as a top defender. “Growing up and coming here and being recruited I was pretty much just an offensive scorer and shooter like you said. Just over the last couple years, having improvement on that end of the floor has been big for me and I take a lot of pride in that and I’m going to keep improving on that end of the floor.”
As Bilas noted on the air — and we all can see — that performance spike already has been dramatic.
Thomas is no one-hit wonder.
In the first meeting between the No, 19 Cyclones and OU, Hield managed 22 points on 23 shots. The very next game, the Sooners’ standout scored 46 points on the same number of shots in a triple-overtime loss at Kansas.
“You have to, like you said, have mental toughness,” said Thomas, who also shut down Iowa star Jarrod Uthoff in the second-half of ISU’s comeback win Dec. 10 over the No. 9 Hawkeyes. “He’s going to make shots. He took (23) shots (Monday) so he’s going to make some, obviously, so when he makes that tough one, that tough step-back 3, you just have to shake it off and be like, ‘Well, next time down I’m going to do the same thing and hopefully he misses the next one.’”
Resilience matters. The rise of Matt Thomas perfectly illustrates that fact. He’s turned past deficiencies into strengths, developing himself into the player he knew he could be — and he’s not done yet.
“I just think he competes and competes,” Cyclones coach Steve Prohm said. “He’s got good size. He’s tough. He understands the scouting report.”
And the defense overall? That’s tracking upward, just like Thomas.
“I’m proud of our guys, because we get killed and ridiculed for our defense and we held Oklahoma to 77 points and 42 percent shooting,” Prohm said. “We made toughness plays (Monday). We’ve just got to keep doing it.”
UP NEXT: The Cyclones (14-4, 3-3) travel to Fort Worth, Texas for a Saturday 3 p.m. matchup with TCU (9-9, 1-5). ISU is 6-0 against the Horned Frogs since they joined the Big 12, with all of those wins coming by double digits.
KENPOM SAYS…: Advanced stats site kenpom.com projects an 82-74 ISU win on Saturday. The Cyclones’ win probability is pegged at 77 percent. A few other interesting tidbits: ISU has risen to third nationally in adjusted offensive efficiency, with a rating of 120.5. Point guard Monté Morris holds an offensive rating of 127.2, which ranks 55th in the country and leads the Cyclones.
ETC.: ISU has made 28 of its last 31 free throws. That positive trend started when the Cyclones drained their last 14 in Saturday’s 76-63 win at Kansas State. They made their last seven on Monday, with Abdel Nader sinking four of them. … ISU improved to 12-0 when holding its opponent to fewer than 80 points. … As of Tuesday afternoon, the Cyclones ranked second in the Big 12 (conference games only) in both scoring (82.8 points) and field goal percentage (48.5). They’re fifth in opponent field goal percentage (44.6) and fourth in rebounding margin (plus-2).