Cyclones seek to fix “Achilles’ heel” in advance of Saturday’s matchup with No. 18 Texas Tech

Jan. 2: Iowa State guard Rasir Bolton is hit by Baylor’s Jared Butler. © Bryon Houlgrave via Imagn Content Services, LLC

 Iowa State men’s basketball coach Steve Prohm said he and his coaches crafted a list of “about 10 things” his team needs to do in order to have a chance to beat No. 18 Texas Tech at 3 p.m. Saturday (ESPN2) at Hilton Coliseum. 

 But there’s really one thing that’s most vital: Cutting down on turnovers.

 The Cyclones (2-6, 0-4 Big 12) rank last in the conference in turnover margin (minus-2.13) and assist-to-turnover ratio (0.73-to-1). The Red Raiders (9-3, 2-2) will pose a serious challenge to efforts to improve both numbers — and finally break through with a league win — in ISU’s fifth matchup in nine games against a top-20 team.

 “I think if you really look at our numbers, that’s been our Achilles’ heel,” Prohm said of taking care of the basketball. “The last five years I think we’ve averaged right around 11. We’ve got to shore that up. And (against) Texas (in a 78-72 loss in Austin this week), a team that defends really well in the half court, that presses at times, extends their defense and has good length and activity, I thought it was really good — a big step. Eight turnovers was huge.”

 There’s no doubt the Cyclones can shoot it. They rank second in the Big 12 in field goal percentage at 46.9 percent, but that hasn’t translated into sustained success in 20 or 40-minute spans, largely because of missed opportunities stemming from thwarted possessions.

 It’s also notable that the Cyclones have played four games against teams ranked in the top-five when they met, so quality of competition has directly impacted their ball-handling struggles.

“It’s really just a focus thing,” said ISU guard Rasir Bolton, who is the only player nationally to average a minimum of 14 points, 5 assists, 5 rebounds and 3 steals this season. “Just knowing where guys are at and making the right passes; delivering it and just taking care of the ball. Some of it is missed dribbles or maybe dribbling it off our foot, or making a pass to a guy thinking he’s there, but we’re really not on the same page all the time. Just cleaning that up. Communication will probably be the best thing for it. I mean, just being aware of it now, as a team, and moving forward we have to control that.”

 As Prohm noted, committing just eight turnovers at Texas was a bright spot, but, again, Tech will offer stern resistance to that arc of improvement. The Red Raiders lead the league in turnover margin (7.33) and rank third in assist-to-turnover ratio (1.22-to-1).

 “They’ve always been good defensively since Chris (Beard) has been there,” Prohm said. “I think we understand how we need to attack them. We just have to be efficient in the way we do it.”

 That’s how working on one obvious shortcoming dovetails into those roughly 10 keys to victory.

 “Playing off two feet,” Prohm said while enumerating items on that to-do list. “Different things like that. Shot ready. Things that Tech makes you have to do. You’ve got to play really well on two feet or else you’re gonna get  charges. You’ve got to be strong with the ball. You’ve got to meet passes. We’ve got to keep spacing. You can’t run to the ball. And then when you have advantages you’ve really got to attack and push the pass and attack them from that standpoint. But being shot ready, not letting their pressure speed you up, keeping good spacing and don’t run to the ball, let the ball find you — those are all little things.”

 All of them add up. Prohm said beyond Bolton’s versatility, Javan Johnson’s inside-outside abilities on the offensive end need to he further exploited. The 6-6 Troy transfer averaged 18 points while shooting 5-for-11 from long range in the past two games. 

“I think he’s taking better shots and I think he’s starting to get a little bit more comfortable,” Prohm said. “We’ve got to find him areas. We’ve started to run some things for him, getting some different actions; trying to get him downhill to get him more comfortable. Get him on the ball some, off the ball based on who’s guarding him. … His versatility’s going to be a big key for us (Saturday).”


*** Prohm said freshman guard Jaden Walker could be poised for more playing time.


“I think he’s starting to make strides again,” Prohm said of Walker, who scored five points in the season-opening win over Arkansas-Pine Bluff, but a total of six points in the last five games. “I think he’s kind of finding his confidence and getting back. He’s got some length and playmaking ability so we’ve got to get him out there.”

Walker said adjusting to Big 12-caliber play has been “a challenge,” but he’s getting healthier and stronger every day.

“I’m going against a lot of good players who can go to the league, and also coming off of knee surgery, which kind of put me behind and trying to catch up with other players,” Walker said. “I’ve been trying to put in work and trying to get myself back to where I was if not better.”

*** Prohm said talented 7-0 freshman forward Xavier Foster is still dealing with a chronic foot issue and the team is working on a “load management plan” for him. He added that safeguarding Foster’s long-term health is the ultimate goal.

*** Ole Miss transfer Blake Hinson is back on campus, Prohm said. The 6-7 guard/forward average 10.1 points and 4.6 rebounds last season. He went home in September to deal with an undisclosed medical condition.

“Great to have him back around the guys. I think it’s good for us. I think it’s good for him,” Prohm said. “Still getting to know him. We haven’t spent a ton of time around him hanging out and different things, and that’s a lot to do with the pandemic. But it’s great to have him back. Basketball-wise, we’re not allowed to do anything with him right now. He can shoot on his own, which he’s been doing, and he can do his strength workouts with our strength coach, but basketball and contact stuff, nothing right now. Just individual shooting on his own. (It) will probably be like that for a while.”