Basketball

Dueling “A-games” required in yet another high stakes ISU-KU clash

Jan 9, 2018; Lawrence, KS, USA; Kansas Jayhawks guard Malik Newman (14) passes the ball as Iowa State Cyclones guard Donovan Jackson (4) defends in the second half at Allen Fieldhouse. Mandatory Credit: Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

AMES — The record run seems to be in peril.

Kansas’s rock (chalk)-solid grip on at least a share of the Big 12 regular season championship that’s held fast for 13 years and running appears to be loosening — as upstart Texas Tech surges ahead.

But is it a mirage, or a true vision of what’s to come in the final three weeks of conference play?

Fortunately, Iowa State will help decide.

“They’re going to bring their A-game and we’ve got to bring our A-game,” said Cyclone freshman guard Lindell Wigginton, whose team hopes to knock the No. 13 Jayhawks down another peg in Tuesday’s 6 p.m. (ESPN2) matchup at Hilton Coliseum. “They’re going to bring it at us and we’ve just gotta respond and bring it at them, too.”

A Cyclone win would bump the Jayhawks a full game behind the Red Raiders in the loss column, while simultaneously nursing slim hopes that a record-extending seventh-straight trip to the NCAA Tournament may not be merely a pie-in-the-sky dream.

There’s nothing wrong with ISU (13-11, 4-8) serving as the supreme spoiler, too, even if an epic and frankly far-fetched stretch run doesn’t materialize.

So it’s ‘game on’ in a series that’s been hotly contested the past six-plus seasons — with the last four meetings being decided by an average of 4.8 points.

“I expect them to come out ready for war,” said Cyclone point guard Nick Weiler-Babb, who is questionable for Tuesday after sitting out the last four games resting and rehabbing left knee tendinitis. “They already beat us once there. They just came off a loss. No team wants to lose twin a row, so you know they’re going to come out firing. They’re going to come out playing hard, so we just have to handle that and go hit-for-hit with them.”

Us and them. One team fighting to extend its mind-boggling streak of regular season conference crowns to 14. The other fighting for survival in a season marked by tumult, change and uncertainty.

The trump card, perhaps?

Hilton and its proud population of 14,384.

The Cyclones have yet to post back-to-back conference wins this season, but also have yet to play consecutive Big 12 home games since New Year’s Day.

Since then, ISU is a dominant 4-0 at Hilton against league foes, including three straight wins over teams ranked in the AP top 17.

“Our fan base, you come out, it’s 14,(384),” said Prohm, who is 1-1 against the Jayhawks in Hilton. “I’m sure the kids will be backing out if they’re not already for tomorrow, the students. Our fan base, there’s not a lot of schools that can put 14(-plus) in like that every single night and our fan base has been awesome this year and the energy in Hilton has been awesome.”

What’s been less than awesome is establishing a practice rhythm, which may help explain ISU’s inability (so far) to put together even a modest two-game win streak in conference.

Weiler-Babb planned to practice Monday, as did banged-up big men Cameron Lard (shoulder) and Solomon Young (knee). Lard and Young were slated for non-contact work. Forward Hans Brase remains out.

So what would already be a somewhat pared-down practice regime becomes even more bare bones — and that’s been a trend, unfortunately, due to the well-documented array of ISU injuries.

“This is the first time, I think I remember as an assistant, that you’ve been down on numbers so much practice-wise,” Prohm said. “Then I think it affects you because there’s a fine line. There are days where today, ‘Hey, we play tomorrow, let’s just clean some things up. Let’s be sharp and let’s go and let’s not go that long.’ But then you’re also dealing with guys that are freshman, or sophomores or are just brand new in the program. They don’t have the repetitions that maybe third-year juniors or four-year seniors have had, to where you need to practice, whether it’s February or March. Some of these guys need all the reps they can get, so there is a fine line in that, to where we’ve tried — we’ve played a lot of two-on-two lately. We’ve played a lot of four-on-four, but sometimes you do need to get five-on-five because your execution’s better.”

So the uncertainty lingers.

Weiler-Babb might play.

Lard and Young could be near 100 percent at tip.

The Cyclones plans to upset the favored Jayhawks may or may not be deftly executed.

One thing’s for certain, though: This will be a stern fight fueled by dueling A-games and stellar guard play on both sides.

And who — especially if Lard is healthy and plays with his now-typical panache — could really ask for anything more?

“Everybody’s got problems,” Prohm said. “Everybody’s dealing with different things. Hopefully we can just put some consistency together as we get down to these last three weeks of the season. Get healthy and see if we can put ourselves in position. The crazy thing is, you have a good week, man, you can be a game out of second place.”

That’s crazy, indeed. It’s also encouraging.

“I like to go up against the best,” Wigginton said. “I’ll always have a chip on my shoulder, but when I go up against the best I want to show that I’m the best, too.”

Rob Gray

administrator

Rob, an Ames native, joined Cyclone Fanatic in August, 2014 after nearly a decade and a half of working at Iowa's two largest newspapers. He spent 10 years at the Des Moines Register and, after a brief stint in public relations, joined the Cedar Rapids Gazette as an Iowa State correspondent three years ago. Rob specializes in feature stories for CF.