Nov 19, 2018; Lahaina, HI, USA; Iowa State Cyclones guard Nick Weiler-Babb (1) dunks against the Arizona Wildcats in the second half during round one of the Maui Jim Maui Invitational at Lahaina Civic Center. Mandatory Credit: Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports
AMES — Before the season started, Iowa State men’s basketball coach Steve Prohm presented his team with two simple Gatorade cups.
One bore the word “confidence,” spelled out upon a swatch of athletic tape. The other was emblazoned with the term “swagger.”
But what did it all mean?
Prohm’s quick-jelling Cyclones weren’t quite sure, so the motivational gambit was initially met with arched eyebrows, bemused skepticism and a few chuckles.
“At first it was kind of like, ‘What are you doing?’” said ISU senior guard Nick Weiler-Babb, whose team takes on No. 18 Iowa at 7 p.m. Thursday (FS1) in the annual Cy-Hawk Series game at Carver-Hawkeye Arena. “We looked at him and everybody started laughing. But as time (goes by), people just started buying into it. Just like Coach Prohm. When he got here, nobody knew who he was. We knew he was a coach at Murray State and when he got here it took a little time to buy into it and now I think that everybody on this team has bought into it and just something as small as a swagger and confidence cup — you buy into it and you pour it on somebody. It really does kind of give somebody confidence and that swagger about them.”
The Cyclones (7-1) will need a full supply of both positive and closely-related attributes against the Hawkeyes (6-2) in their first true road game of the season.
ISU’s won seven of the past nine meetings, but lost the last Cy-Hawk game in Iowa City, 78-64 two years ago.
“A lot of respect for their team,” Prohm said of Iowa, which has lost two straight games against top-12 Wisconsin and Michigan State. “I think they’ve got a really good basketball team — vastly improved from last year. It will be our first true road test. We’v played on the road but we’ve played in a neutral environment, but it will be good. I think we’re ready for this challenge.”
That’s because along with swagger and confidence, the Cyclones’ balanced blend of experience and youth brims with length and versatility.
ISU is ranked No. 15 by KenPom.com and boasts the nation’s 17th-best adjusted offensive efficiency rating (113.5) and 16th-best adjusted defensive efficiency mark (92.9).
“I’ve said this over and over, but this team’s been a lot of fun to coach and be around,” said Prohm, whose Cyclones are one of two teams nationally currently ranked in the top-40 in scoring defense, rebounding margin and steals per game. “Obviously it’s good to be 7-1 right now, but we’ve got a lot more basketball to play, so how do you get better, how do you improve, how do you continue to grow on both ends of the floor? But I do think our length and versatility helps us, especially on the defensive end where we can switch a lot of light screens. We’re interchangeable.”
One key to ISU’s early-season success is rooted in a dogged commitment to each game plan. Another is based on consistency.
These guys excel at having each other’s backs — and exude the confidence and swagger that makes such complementary play possible.
“Regardless of if it’s guarding a guard or guarding a big,” Conditt said. “If coach says he wants us to switch screens, we’re gonna switch. We’re gonna follow what our coaches say.”
For good reason.
An early-season foot injury forced star guard Lindell Wigginton to miss the past seven games — and he’s not slated to return for at least another week to 10 days.
Two other prime contributors, big man Cam Lard and swing man Zoran Talley, were suspended the first seven games, and another veteran, forward Solomon Young, remains out after undergoing groin surgery.
But the Cyclones haven’t played as if they’re short-handed.
That’s because transfers Marial Shayok (19.4 points per game, 6.0 rebounds) and Michael Jacobson (16.8 points, 8.0 boards per game) have blended splendidly with true freshmen such as Talen Horton-Tucker, Tyrese Haliburton and George Conditt, among others, to form a tight unit that’s excelled on both ends of the floor.
“It’s definitely been good for all of us,” Jacobson said of the infusion of youthful talent. “I think it’s helped me a ton too. Just seeing them having fun, it helps me just relax and go out there and play.”
Weiler-Babb leads the Big 12 with a 4.5-to-one assist-to-turnover ratio. Talented reserve Terrence Lewis has drained five of his past 11 3-pointers and scored in double figures twice in the past three games.
So that swagger and confidence is spreading.
“At the end of the day, you just have to have confidence in you, yourself and your team as a whole,” Weiler-Babb said. “Pouring into it is just kind of a small piece of what it stands for.”
What else does it mean? Togetherness. Playing for each other. Trusting the rookies to play like veterans, at home or on the road — on Thursday and beyond.
“It’s a great challenge for our team,” Prohm said. “It’s a great challenge for those young guys — for all of us — to go over there. I think they’ll be fine. We’ve gotta understand that we’re gonna face some adversity … I think the freshmen, they enjoy the moment. I think they take a lot of pride in playing for Iowa State, so I think they’ll have a lot of fun over there. They just need to have fun and play.”