Jan 4, 2017; Waco, TX, USA; Iowa State Cyclones guard Nazareth Mitrou-Long (15) greets teammates during a timeout against the Baylor Bears in the second half at Ferrell Center. Baylor won 65-63. Mandatory Credit: Ray Carlin-USA TODAY Sports
AMES — Somewhere along the course of Naz Mitrou-Long’s rehab journey, he felt the pressing urge to diversify his game.
As a younger man, he’d starred for CIA Bounce on the AAU circuit by not just shooting the 3, but driving and kicking, and finishing around the rim.
Sitting out, then limbering up behind the scenes most of last season helped Iowa State’s fifth-year senior rediscover the “lost” components of his complete game — and it’s showing up big-time.
“Having time to really focus on my game and reconstruct it, I really wanted to get back to the ball-handling and finishing at the rim and expanding on my game,” said Mitrou-Long, who plans to continue attacking the basket as well as starring on the perimeter as the Cyclones (9-4, 1-1) prepare to face Texas (7-7, 1-1) at 8:15 p.m. (ESPN2) Saturday at Hilton Coliseum. “That was definitely a main focus.”
Mitrou-Long, who stands 6-4, ranks 85th nationally according to KenPom in terms of 2-point field goal percentage.
So what, you might say — 85th? Here’s what: Mitrou-Long’s 64.5 percent finishing rate at the rim is bested by only four players nationally who stand 6-3 or shorter.
That means ISU’s soon-to-be second-best all-time 3-point shooter (he’s two behind Scott Christopherson in that stat) stands among elite backcourt company when it comes to driving the lane and dropping in layups.
“You have to use your crafty ability,” Mitrou-Long said. “You look at guys like Georges (Niang) and Monté (Morris), the way then finish around the rim, you’re putting the ball up real wide to get away from their wingspan. Maybe a couple floaters here and there. I mean nothing stops (me) from shooting. Im not going to get away and say that I’m just completely at the rim now.”
Mitrou-Long’s ability (along with other Cyclones) to jet past taller defenders on the bounce becomes especially important against a Longhorns team replete with top-100 players blessed with the perfect blend of length and athleticism.
Texas may have struggled so far this season, but once Shaka Smart gets them all aligned with his principles on both ends, look out.
“You just hope it’s not tomorrow,” ISU coach Steve Prohm said. “Obviously, they’re super-talented. Shaka’s a great coach. I’ve got a lot of respect for them and their program.”
Both the Cyclones and Longhorns are enmeshed in a six-way tie for third place in the league standings. ISU’s managed to split their first two against Texas Tech and Baylor despite being outrebounded by an average of 17 in those contests.
“To be minus-17 and really you had an opportunity to be 2-0 against two really good teams says a lot about our guys,” Prohm said.
Translated: The problems in finishing games are expected to dissipate.
How? Prepare the same way every day. Maintain heightened levels of effort, focus and concentration.
“This is round three tomorrow,” Prohm said.
So dust off. Get better. Rise up and repeat — even in the wake of letting a late six-point lead slip at No. 2 Baylor.
“We’ve just got to move on to Texas and hopefully get the game back against Baylor when they come here,” Morris said.
The past informs the present but a trend doesn’t necessarily persist. Just as Mitrou-Long has resuscitated once-forgotten aspects of his game, ISU can make the ghosts of narrow losses to the Bears, fifth-ranked Gonzaga, and No. 22 Cincinnati fade into memory.
The future can be deeply promising — as long as the proper improvements are made and each skill is sharpened.
“It simply just comes down to getting it done,” said Mitrou-Long, who’s averaging 18.8 points per game since going scoreless in the loss to the Bearcats. “Being in that situation it’s either you’re going to get it done or you’re not. You’re going to buckle down and get a couple more stops. Buckle down and get a couple more buckets or you’re going to be stagnant and let whatever — leave it up to chance. Most of the time when you leave it up to chance on the road, in the other team’s home, it doesn’t turn in your favor. So it just comes down to buckling down.”