Dec 7, 2017; Ames, IA, USA; Iowa State Cyclones guard Donovan Jackson (4) shoots the ball during the first half against the Iowa Hawkeyes at James H. Hilton Coliseum. Mandatory Credit: Reese Strickland-USA TODAY Sports
AMES — Minds tend to wander. Hearts can leap toward the festive family time a few days away. Good practice habits occasionally slip.
Iowa State men’s basketball coach Steve Prohm calls the non-conference warm-up right before Christmas “the toughest game to play” — and that’s mostly because of the reasons listed above.
So Prohm aimed to pre-emptively strike any potential for lackluster preparation by posing a simple, yet powerful question to his now-surging Cyclones (10-2):
“‘Where do you want to be in March?’” said Prohm, whose team faces road-weary Maryland-Eastern Shore at 6 p.m. Wednesday at Hilton Coliseum. “That’s our focus right now.”
Appropriately enough, it’s a variation of the query he made to his players following a deflating 18-point home loss to Milwaukee five weeks ago.
Back then, Prohm essentially asked his players who they wanted to be.
The Cyclones — bolstered by the decision to make Nick Weiler-Babb the primary ball handler and the additions of Hans Brase and Cameron Lard — responded by reeling off eight straight wins, including a mettle-testing 76-65 triumph last weekend over a very good Northern Iowa team.
“We knew we were going to have to be the tougher team and we knew we were going to have to defend in the half court and we knew we were going to have to be physical with (Klint) Carlson and (Bennett) Koch and we did a great job in that,” Prohm said. “I thought Solomon the last couple games has played extremely well in the post. He’s competed. He’s brought his physicality, the toughness that he had last year.”
Young’s multi-faceted, paint-based talent is obviously needed as back-up for his headline-grabbing teammates who continue to post dazzling stats:
*** Weiler-Babb’s been nothing short of spectacular at the point. He’s the only player in the country averaging at least 13 points per game to go with seven assists and seven boards, on average.
***Lindell Wigginton and Donovan Jackson lead the team with a 16.6-points-per-game scoring average, and are cooking both from 3-point range and at the rim.
***Lard has been an explosive rim-runner off the bench, too, and Brase has provided calm leadership and solid shooting and board work.
Brase drilled a 3-pointer against the Panthers and Jeff Beverly went 2-for-2 from long range, forming combined stat line that was — and is — important to Prohm and the team.
“I told somebody the other night, we’re going to need a 3-for-5 from 3 from those guys and we were 3-for-6 from that spot,” Prohm said. “So we need to keep getting confidence and game reps for all of those guys.”
Enter the Hawks (3-9), who should afford Prohm the opportunity to play all his healthy players extended minutes — as long as the focus remains in what the “now” means relative to the ultimate future goals.
“Humility,” Prohm said. “I think humility. I think that’s one of the biggest words. Of all successful people, I think you’ll see humility, so that’s the challenge right now. Can you stay humble? Can you stay focused on what’s really important? And what’s really important right now is having two days of good practice and playing well Wednesday night — trying to max Iowa State out Wednesday night. If we can do that, that will be great. We’ll be 1-0 going into Christmas and then go enjoy family, because basketball season is long from a standpoint of it’s September through April, so these three, four days, they kind of reenergize you to get really focused and ready for the conference season.”
So no wandering minds. No fast forwarding to thoughts of grandma’s Christmas cookies. No lapses in practice intensity.
And if visions of March aren’t motivating enough, there’s always the Milwaukee loss to lean on.
“We already hit that real low point,” Jackson said, “so we’ve just got to keep moving forward.”
Reflecting on rock bottom can draw out the extra energy and tenacity needed to elevate one’s game even when the opponent — and time of the season — may prove problematic in terms of quality of focus.
“If we make the NCAA Tournament I’ll probably send Milwaukee a care package up there to their staff, because it put a lot of things in perspective for us and for our team, especially as youthful — and it’s not youthful, it’s new and youthful,” Prohm said. “So I think it put into perspective, ‘Hey, we need to do some things a little different.’ So it helped. So now you gotta handle success and we’re nowhere near where we want to be be from a success standpoint, but we are playing better. Now you’ve got to handle that and figure out how to get better.”