Feb 22, 2016; Morgantown, WV, USA; Iowa State Cyclones guard Monte Morris (11) dribbles past West Virginia Mountaineers guard Jevon Carter (2) during the first half at the WVU Coliseum. Mandatory Credit: Ben Queen-USA TODAY Sports
AMES — One game, unless it comes in late March or early April, never defines a college basketball season.
One week, as in this one for Iowa State? It might.
The Cyclones (13-7, 5-3 Big 12) face No. 7 West Virginia’s breakneck-paced press in Tuesday’s 8 p.m. (ESPN2) conference clash at Hilton Coliseum, then will try to topple third-ranked Kansas on Saturday — one week after the Jayhawks thoroughly handled Kentucky in Rupp Arena.
Must wins? Nope (but taking at least one would be nice).
Robust resume-shaping possibilities? No doubt.
“You definitely want to go one game at a time, but this is a huge week,” said senior guard Naz Mitrou-Long, who’s coming off just his third single-figure scoring effort in Saturday’s Big 12/SEC Challenge loss at Vanderbilt. “I definitely feel like we just came off of a loss that we shouldn’t have, with all due respect to a great Vanderbilt team ran by a great coach, but I think we really let that one go rather than got beat, so this is a great week of opportunity for us to get back on pace or even a little bit ahead of schedule. If we get this win (Tuesday), we’re actually one game ahead of last year. I never knew that until coach (Steve Prohm) told me and I definitely think this is the biggest week of the year for us.”
It’s the biggest back-to-back challenge, to be sure.
ISU has faced three teams ranked No. 1 at some point this season, but lost those tense matchups by a combined eight points.
When opportunity knocks, the call must fully be answered — and narrow misses don’t help your chances on Selection Sunday unless there’s an ultimate breakthrough or two.
“We’ve got great leadership,” Prohm said. “They understand what (Tuesday’s) about. They understand that you’d better have some toughness to you if you’re going to beat West Virginia. I’m excited about the game. It’s going to be a great atmosphere. It’s a great opportunity for us and our team to take a big, big step. We’ve been close in a couple big games this year and it’s time for us to knock one down.”
The Jevon Carter-led Mountaineers (17-4, 5-3) will make that plan very difficult to execute.
They force 22.7 turnovers per game with their pulse-quickening pressure — a full 10 more, on average, then they cough up themselves.
They also swept the Cyclones last season, including an 81-76 win at Hilton that, coincidentally, followed a Big 12/SEC Challenge ISU setback at Texas A&M.
“It’s always a fun game because you don’t run a lot of offense,” said ISU’s record-setting point guard Monté Morris, who Saturday became the school’s all-time assists leader with 666. “You’re just out there playing off feel; just knowing you need to hydrate, because (Mountaineers coach Bob) Huggins is going to send two or three guys at me. So it will be a fun game.”
Rebounding more than turnover differential doomed the Cyclones in last season’s matchups. West Virginia carved out an 11-rebound advantage while posting that comeback win in Ames, then crafted a 14-board edge in a 10-point triumph at Morgantown.
In short, the deep and experienced Mountaineers can beat you in a lot of ways, but their methods typically hinge on that maddening, physical trap defense.
“It’s relentless,” Prohm said.
Added Mitrou-Long: “You never necessarily know when the trap’s coming. You know it’s going to come, you just don’t know when it’s coming, so in your mind you’re thinking, ‘All right, panic now or not?’ Some people think that, but again, I think the key to beating it is just staying cool, calm and collected, and with the point guard that we’ve got, and us trusting the ball in his hinds, I think we’re going to be able to do some special things.”
That record-breaking point guard, you may recall, took a retaliatory elbow to the head in his first matchup with the Mountaineers — a blowout loss that featured Dustin Hogue’s noteworthy Kung Fu kick.
So that element of “fun” only goes so far when these two teams tangle. And just how much enjoyment the Cyclones glean from this round of sparring with West Virginia will obviously depends on the scoreboard’s appearance after that unremitting pressure is finally snuffed out by a spent game clock.
“You can tell somebody a guy’s athletic, a guy can shoot it, or this pressure is crazy — you’ve never seen it before,” Morris said. “But any other basketball player’s going to look at you crazy like, ‘Man, it can’t be that bad.’ But the pressure’s good. They’re a good defensive team. They’ve been doing it for a long time. They’ve got vets, so we’re just going to have to see how people react out there.”
Among those people: The raucous fans who will form another sellout crowd of 14,384 at Hilton. Mitrou-Long said his home gym’s trademark noise can help beat back the press, too. And to kick off a big week, any added edge, on the court or from the bellowing voices surrounding it, must be summoned and exploited.
“That’s why we have one of the best court advantages in the country,” Mitrou-Long said. “They dismantle a lot of teams, it’s not just their press. When we get that momentum on our side they give us that extra boost and it’s obvious. You can hear it through your TV if you’r not here and when you’re here, it’s a different level. That’s why every analyst that comes here, every person that’s of higher basketball rankings or knowledge knows that this is one of the best places to play in the country — in my opinion the best. So I definitely think that being at home is going to be a big advantage to us, and again, if we stick to our tools we’ll be able to come out victorious.”