Iowa State head coach Steve Prohm yells out to his Cyclones from the sideline in the second half against Kansas State on Tuesday, Dec. 15, 2020, at Hilton Coliseum in Ames.
AMES — The ball caromed off the rim and rolled towards the sideline at Hilton Coliseum.
George Conditt’s miss appeared destined to end up underneath the table set up alongside the court, but Kansas State head coach Bruce Weber hustled after the loose basketball, corralled it then fired a bounce pass back to Iowa State’s junior big man underneath the rim.
Conditt promptly dunked the ball through the goal, but there were no cheers or even a crowd in the arena outside of the few folks finishing up their work after another night in the Cyclones’ once-feared home arena.
The Cyclones lost on this night. It was the team’s third-straight loss, and this one perhaps the most baffling of the bunch — a 74-65 setback to Weber’s Wildcats, a team that lost to a previously-winless Division II program on its own home floor just seven days before and entered Tuesday night’s contest widely regarded as the front-runner to finish last in the Big 12.
This night ended with a new frontrunner to earn that distinction, however, and it unfortunately belongs to the Iowa State Cyclones. This night ended with a head coach searching for answers and a program looking for any direction better than the one it appears to be headed in.
This night ended with Conditt, who played only three minutes, recording a block and a personal foul, shooting by himself on one of the baskets at Hilton Coliseum while the rest of the world kept going around him.
“It was basically deja vu from the South Dakota State game,” Steve Prohm said after the game. “We come into the locker room down 12 or 14, don’t really defend, kind of get away from our game plan offensively in the first half then second half compete a lot better, make a couple of shots, score in transition or get into the paint.”
There is a theme developing in this four-game-old Iowa State basketball season — and it is not a good one.
The Cyclones dig themselves an early hole, partially dig their way out of said hole, then ultimately fall flat on their backs before reaching the solace of solid ground.
Kansas State led for 37:37 in this game. The Cyclones had a lead on two different occasions — when it was 2-0 and when Xavier Foster came up with a steal and breakaway slam to make it 14-13 with 13:48 left in the first half.
The Wildcats’ lead grew to 14 at the halftime buzzer. Iowa State went into the locker room at the break with 13 turnovers and 12 made baskets.
Kansas State had dominated the game in nearly every sense while junking it up, creating chaos and, frankly, being the tougher team.
“We’ve got to go to the drawing board and figure it out,” Rasir Bolton, who scored a team-high 19 points on 7-of-10 shooting but turned it over seven times, said of the slow starts. “Maybe a lack of focus, maybe a little nerves, just trying to make plays happen early, but we’ve just got to figure it out as a team.”
The Cyclones did bounce back to an extent during the second half and pulled to within five points with less than 30 seconds left, but by that time it was too late.
The second half showed moments of what this Iowa State team has in its potential tool belt, including Foster scoring eight of his career-high 10 points, but they failed to do these things consistently enough to every really pull within what felt like legitimate striking distance.
By the time Iowa State seemed ready to make a run, the Wildcats had entered kill the clock mode and were happy to let every single second tick off the clock on either end during each possession.
The Cyclones kept fighting and they won the second half of the game by five points, but the hole they had dug themselves was simply too deep.
“I would just say desperation,” Bolton said on what fueled the attempted rally. “We were trying to win.”
This quote from Bolton is where I’ll present a question to consider and it is a simple one to ask, but a hard one to answer.
What took so long? Why has it taken this team so long to play the way they appear capable of and their coach expects them to during multiple games this season? Why does it take getting down by 14 points to become desperate in the pursuit of victory?
Twice now that lack of a sense of urgency from the opening tip has handed the Cyclones defeat and will continue to do so during a loaded Big 12 slate that includes five of the nation’s top-20 teams.
Kansas State is nothing compared to the monsters Baylor, Kansas or Texas Tech will bring into this arena this winter. The Wildcats are a walk in the park compared to Bob Huggins’ No. 8 West Virginia squad the Cyclones will travel to face on Friday.
You show up without a sense of urgency or desperation to win in those games and you’re not only staying down in the hole you dig for yourself, but you’ll also be buried over three times once the final buzzer sounds.
“That’s the frustrating thing,” Prohm said. “I don’t understand that. I don’t. I don’t get that part of it. I don’t.”
There are a lot of minute basketball details we can get into in the coming days that plague this team. Whether it is pick and roll defense, shot selection, pass selection, rebounding, whatever. The issues this team has in those areas are numerous.
But, the biggest problem this team needs to get over is figuring out how to come out and play with a sense of urgency from the opening tip. That problem will surely require some self-reflection as much as it will self-diagnosis of the pure basketball problems.
This requires looking yourself in the mirror and deciding if you want to be a guy who sticks to the scouting report and lives by the details from the opening tip until the final buzzer. This requires playing with high-level energy and having a desire to be tougher than the man across from you on each and every possession. This requires not settling for contested jumpers, not failing to close out with high hands or being okay with giving up that contested rebound then being dunked on.
Without these things, the holes will only get deeper and harder to climb out of as this season moves along.
The Big 12 is not going to wait for you to decide to turn the desperation switch. The holes will only get deeper and harder to climb out of from this point forward.
Conditt was surely frustrated with his lack of playing time against Kansas State. His coach has seemed frustrated with the way his junior center has been playing so far this season and noted the way for Conditt’s play to improve was to “compete” after last Friday’s loss to Iowa.
This all culminated with Conditt alone on the floor at Hilton Coliseum, shooting jump hooks and working on his post moves while everything else around him continued as normal.
“He’s got to continue to work. We all do,” Prohm said when told Conditt was on the floor shooting postgame. “He’s probably frustrated right now just because of his playing time tonight and he should be from that standpoint. I didn’t know he was out there, but that’s good. We need consistent daily effort from everybody, especially our upperclassmen.”
Those upperclassmen will be the ones who take charge and step forward as leaders if this season is going to reverse its current trend and start heading back in a positive direction. Guys like Conditt, Bolton and Solomon Young, the only three currently active players who have played for this program for more than a few months, have to be the ones to step forward and set a trend of desperation moving forward.
Tuesday night in Hilton Coliseum felt like a signal the Big 12, and the rest of the college basketball world is passing Iowa State men’s basketball by and it will take more than some second half desperation to save it.
It will take some self-reflection, hard conversations, determination, hustle and grit to get this thing back on the tracks.
There was something almost perfect in watching Bruce Weber hustle down the sidelines after a loose ball nearly half an hour after the game and only one player on the floor. Weber’s team is certainly imperfect, but there was little doubting which team was more locked in and ready to compete on this night.
“Bottom line is we’re not where we need to be,” Prohm said. “Injuries could be a part of it. The way we worked out, the injuries that we’ve suffered, not having some scrimmages, exhibitions, there’s a lot of thoughts you could put into it. Bottom line is we’re 1-3 and 0-1 in the league and defensively we’re not where we need to be right now.”
The Cyclones are having a tough time finding where they need to be right now, but Weber’s pass was a perfect strike into Conditt’s hands for a dunk.
Somehow, it was the perfect way to describe the start to this Iowa State basketball season.
Nobody cheered and few people were there to witness it.