Dec 8, 2016; Iowa City, IA, USA; Iowa State Cyclones guard Monte Morris (11) brings the ball up court against the Iowa Hawkeyes at Carver-Hawkeye Arena. Iowa won 78-64. Mandatory Credit: Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports
AMES — When his head hits the pillow, it’s hard to shut down the fast-breaking thoughts.
Sleep comes fitfully now for Iowa State’s star point guard Monté Morris — and that’s a mighty good thing.
“Just knowing it’s my last go-around at conference and I’m ready to just get after it and play my style of basketball,” said Morris, who will lead the Cyclones (8-3) into Friday’s 5 p.m. Big 12 season opener against Texas Tech (11-1) at Hilton Coliseum. “I haven’t had one game in non-conference where I feel like I just dominated and I’m just so anxious to do that. I know it’s coming sooner or later.”
The key to said dominance? Mastering all the little things without faltering. Morris has been the catalyst for that for three-plus seasons. He’ll make his 55th career Big 12 start on Friday and has set up — and/or made — countless game-winners in the past.
But it’s the near future that both excites and concerns him.
“I know it’s big boy time and it’s different competition from Mississippi Valley State to any Big 12 team,” said Morris, who’s averaging 14.6 points and a team-leading 5.7 assists. “It will be fun. Ive been having a hard time sleeping because I know how fun Big 12 play is. I know the guys feel the same way that’s been there and I know the new guys are ready to adjust, because they’re all competitive.”
Enter the Red Raiders.
They feature an explosive scorer in Keenan Evans (13.6 points per game) as well as a top-shelf rebounder in Justin Gray (two games with 17 or more boards).
They’ve sweated out narrow wins over Rice and Richmond while losing just once — by two points, on a neutral floor vs. Auburn.
“They’re playing with great confidence, they’re defending, they’re sharing the ball,” Cyclones coach Steve Prohm said.
Lubbock newcomer Chris Beard clearly has Tech trending in a positive direction, which helps make the league as deep, from 1-through-10, as it’s ever been. “No nights off” has long been an ISU cliché/directive. It’s especially relevant now.
“You can’t sleep on guys like Tech or TCU,” said sterling shooting guard Naz Mitrou-Long, who leads ISU in scoring at 15.3 points per game. “From top to bottom I think it’s the deepest the league’s been. No game’s a gimme. None. That will be a great challenge for us but that’s what you want. That’s why you play in the Big 12.”
KenPom pegs the Cyclones as a winner on Friday, but not by much. The projected score: 69-66. The win probability? A shaky 61 percent. So “no gimme” indeed.
“This year should be real fun and interesting,” Morris said.
Only if the Cyclones thrive in getting tough and nasty — especially among its backcourt denizens. Prohm said they’ll continue to play four guards at times and each one will be required to rebound and defend (let alone score) at an elite level.
Heightening those skills has been highlighted in practice lately.
“You see I’m growing out my facial hair because I’m trying to get nasty, man, just trying to do the little things,” said Mitrou-Long, who’s drilled 14 of his last 21 3-pointers after a slow start. “We’re getting after it. I’m boxing out guys like Ray Kasongo and Solomon Young and those guys are huge, very strong, and (Prohm’s) putting us up to that challenge because he wants us to do everything we can to get the rebound, get the stop. But everything’s been competitive. That’s been the change as far the previous weeks that we’ve been practicing. Literally everything we’ve done is competitive. And if you lose, you get on the line and run. That’s what he’s been doing to pull that out of us.”
The line. The run. Morris, Mitrou-Long and the rest of the Cyclones are ready for all of it — even if sleep comes sporadically as the pace quickens.
“I just know what type of player I am and what standard I hold myself to,” Morris said. “I’ve just been working and working and one of these games you’ll see it, all the work I’ve put in, so I’m just anxious and excited, just eager to get out there.”