Time: 8 p.m.
Location: Hilton Coliseum, Ames, Iowa
KenPom: 73-64, Iowa State
Line: Iowa State -9
Conference season is upon us.
It might feel a little early for that considering it is still only the second week of December and there is still a (pretty big) football game this week, but, I mean, COVID, ya know?
Elite head coach Bruce Weber (more on this later) and his Kansas State Wildcats roll into town coming off a one-point win over Milwaukee this past weekend while the Cyclones are still searching for answers after getting ran out of the gym by Iowa last Friday.
The Cyclones should win this game, but it will require some things we have not seen this Iowa State do for extended periods yet this season.
Here are three points on Tuesday night’s Big 12 opener:
1 – Compete
There were a couple words that Steve Prohm used often during his press conference on Monday. One of them was activity and the other was compete.
The two things are tied together.
This year’s Iowa State team has been at its best when playing with high-level activity on both ends of the floor. When the Cyclones have high-level activity, it means they’re competing to the best of their ability.
That means getting up under in on-ball defense and forcing them to earn their position on the floor, getting into passing lanes to force turnovers and crashing the glass with reckless abandon. It means attacking the basket offensively and getting downhill towards the rim then kicking it out, making the extra pass and finding an open shot from the perimeter.
When the Cyclones have done those things, like they did for a short stretch that allowed them to take the lead last Friday in Iowa City (albeit with Iowa’s superstar center Luka Garza on the bench), they’ve been capable of putting together runs of success.
When Prohm’s team does not do those things, they’ve dug themselves big holes (as seen in each of their first three games) and left themselves searching for answers on both ends.
“(On Friday) when Tyler (Harris) was on (Jordan) Bohannon, okay, and Bohannon is a terrific player, really good player, but, man, I thought that really caused them issues. Okay? Then they put (Connor) McCaffrey at the point,” Prohm said. “Well, we need to be able to have that same type of activity with the next guy on McCaffrey and to continue to force our hand with great activity, great energy, great ball pressure. I think when we did that, and we had several possessions like that, you know, we were able to put a good stretch together and we had a stretch together, I think in the first half, it was we outscored them 30-17 you know, but you only hold them to 17 you’re doing some good things defensively, which that’s going to lead to good offense. It’s more about our activity level and then just being in the right position. That’s our biggest focus is the activity level. If you’re competing the right way, your activity level is going to be really good.”
Iowa State has shown flashes of being able to compete at the level necessary to get things done this season, but they have simply been flashes and spurts.
The reality is this Cyclone team is probably not going to be prolific offensively and blow people away purely with their ability to put the ball in the basket. That is just the unfortunate truth of the personnel this team has and their apparent limitations to this point.
But, having a high-level of activity, especially defensively, can get the Cyclones some easy opportunities in transition and in just simply playing before the opposing defense can set.
I call this activity and level of competitiveness “playing like a junkyard dog.”
This team has guys who have the physical capability to be junkyard dogs, but it takes the commitment to playing that way consistently to do it successfully.
2 – Push the Pace
I mentioned it briefly before, but pushing the pace in this game against the Wildcats will be especially crucial when you consider the way Bruce Weber’s teams like to play — slow.
This year’s K-State squad plays one of the slowest paces in the country, ranking No. 347 nationally in adjusted tempo by KenPom, making them the third-slowest major conference team ahead of only Villanova and Virginia.
While the Wildcats are not near as talented as they have been in past seasons, Weber’s teams have a way of evening the playing field by simply keeping the ball away from you. It’s almost like football teams that run the ball seemingly 10,000 times a game for three-yard gains, but end up with a 10-plus minute advantage in time of possession.
They will couple that with intense ball-pressure and trying to junk things up enough to make your offense inefficient.
“I think you got to be disciplined against them because they’re gonna run a lot of stuff, they run it all with really good pace, they’ve got great movement in their offense,” Prohm said. “They’re going to turn you over and then try to attack you, whether it’s late shot clock, off the bounce, off a late pin down, off pick and roll action… Rebounding is a big critical piece to where we didn’t do a great job in Iowa City with that. Just on the offensive end, you got to be able to run offense against against a tough half poor minded defensive team.”
The way Kansas State likes to play is the way I see this Iowa State team probably having the most success. The Cyclones have more offensive talent than the Wildcats (probably a lot more), but figuring out a way to throw people off with your athleticism, ball-pressure and just being the toughest guys on the floor will level the playing field.
As bad as K-State has been this season, they are always going to be tough. They are going to make you uncomfortable. They are going to make you work for everything that you get.
Figuring out a way to get in transition and create easy opportunities can flip the script on this team. It will force them into uncomfortable situations and prevent them from running sets over and over again.
This requires creating turnovers and, again, crashing the glass with reckless abandon then quickly outletting the ball down the floor to get into early offense that does not allow the defense to set.
In other words, activity level and competitiveness will win out.
3 – E(lite)ating Crow
I will not shy away from the fact that the coach I’ve been heralding as elite for the last however many years might have the team most likely to go 0-18 in Big 12 play in the past half-decade. KenPom currently has the Wildcats slated to win two more games this entire season (against Jacksonville and Omaha) and even that might be a stretch when you consider this team lost to D2 Fort Hays State just last week.
This team is not elite by any stretch of the imagination.
Still, as I’ve mentioned several times during his piece, there is little doubt this team will come in and do their best to compete for 40 minutes. More often than not, they won’t have the talent to put the ball in the basket enough to win, but Weber has always been elite at getting his guys to play as hard as possible until the final buzzer sounds.
That should be the case in this game.
But, K-State will be arriving in Ames with some guys committed to the junkyard dog mentality. I have little doubt that will be the case and Iowa State not matching that mentality could make this game more difficult than it should be.
May the best (or most elite) junkyard dog win.