AMES — Iowa State’s super-talented freshman guard Lindell Wigginton knows little to nothing about Northern Iowa’s extremely-skilled rookie guard, Tywhon Pickford.
That’s understandable, but certain to change.
Wigginton came to the Cyclones from Halifax, Nova Scotia. Pickford hails from the Twin Cities — and they never ran into each other on the top-end AAU circuit.
“I don’t know him,” said the high-scoring Wigginton, who will face Pickford and the Panthers at 3:30 p.m. Saturday in Des Moines.
We all will soon enough, as both true freshmen seek to make their respective marks in this every-other-year Hy-Vee Big Four Classic series between ISU (7-2) and UNI (8-2) in Des Moines.
Wigginton has shined most so far driving and finishing, or rising up from 3-point range. He’s averaging 22.7 points and shooting a sizzling 57.9 percent from deep in ISU’s last four wins.
Pickford’s struggling a bit with his shot, but has emerged as a force on both the offensive and defensive glass. He’s averaging a UNI-best 10.1 boards per game — and pulled down a striking 18 in a late November win over N.C. State in the Bahamas.
Cyclones coach Steve Prohm saw Pickford play in last winter’s Breakdown Sports Boys’ Tip Off Classic in Hopkins, Minn. He was so impressed he texted assistant Neil Berry about him — even though ISU was done signing at that point.
“He was a guy that caught my eye from a standpoint of, ‘This kid’s a pretty good player,’” said Prohm, whose team has won seven straight games. “When you’ve got some toughness on the perimeter like that and a guy that can go and get nine, 10, 11 rebounds — I know his rebounding numbers in some of these games have been off the charts. He’s got good toughness. He’s got good size. He’s got good strength. … He just brings some toughness and the intangibles to that team, but he’s a guy I saw and knew about in high school a little bit and I was like, ‘Man, he’s a pretty good little player,’ and so he’s stepped in there and done really well.”
That makes Pickford the X-factor for the Panthers on Saturday.
Who assumes that role for the Cyclones?
Possibly Wigginton, even though he’s not sneaking up on anybody as the Cyclones’ second-leading scorer, behind sharpshooting senior Donovan Jackson.
Wigginton’s averaging 4.1 rebounds per game, but has pulled down as many as 10 and is physically capable of at least partially cancelling out Pickford’s knack for chasing down boards.
So is ISU’s hyper-versatile point guard, Nick Weiler-Babb, whose current stat line of 12.8 points, 6.8 rebounds and 7.9 assists per game serves as on-paper proof that he’s adept at taking what the defense gives him.
“I just kind of play the game and when guys are open, I get them the ball and if they make shots, the assists come easy,” said Weiler-Babb, who ranks fifth nationally in assists per game. “And rebounds, the big guys are boxing out so hard, it’s just easy for me to walk in there and get a rebound. And the points, it just comes out of the offense and guys are getting me open shots off screens and off just drive and kicks.”
Sounds simple. It won’t be against the Panthers, who consistently play supremely disciplined, sound and winning basketball.
ISU’s lost four of its past five meetings with UNI, including the last matchup in Des Moines, 81-79.
And the Panthers don’t necessarily want to play at a snail’s pace. They strive to weaken a team’s resolve; force the opponent to lose sight of details and beat itself.
That approach requires deep discipline to both execute and counter — and it’s a staple of Ben Jacobson-coached teams.
“Defensively, their stats are off the charts,” Prohm said of UNI, which is limiting foes to 35.7 percent field goal shooting. “I mean, they’re going to make it tough for you to score. They’re going to play with a lot of confidence, a lot of swagger, a lot of toughness — and they should. They’re had a lot of really good wins from Arlington to UNLV to SMU to NC State, so it will be a great challenge for us, but we’re looking forward to it.”
Game plans were installed relatively late this week for both teams as players prepared for and finished up final exams. Both teams played Sunday and both coaches immediately began delving into game film — first in a piecemeal fashion, then at a fever pitch as game week gathered speed Wednesday and Thursday.
“Good players and very well coached,” Jacobson said of the Cyclones. “I think people after the first two games because of the world we live in right now, whether it’s one game or two games, everyone thinks your season’s over. It’s never the case. It’s never been the case and it never will be the case, no matter what social media does to us. It’s just not the case and they’ve made some great adjustments. They’ve got really good players and they’ve got a really good coach. For six or seven games they’ve been in the right spots and they look really good on film.”
Same goes for UNI, which points to another hotly contested matchup. Each of the last six meetings have been decided by nine points or fewer, so pulling out a win hinges on x, y and z-factors.
“I just heard they were physical,” Wigginton said. “They’re like big, strong guys. They’re farm guys, so they’re strong. I heard that. I heard that, but we haven’t really looked at them too much. I heard they’ve got some big wins this year, so I’m just coming in looking to be aggressive.”