Jan 5, 2021; Austin, TX, USA; Texas Longhorns forward Kai Jones (22) fights for the ball against Iowa State Cyclones forward George Conditt IV (4) and guard Jalen Coleman-Lands (5) in the first half at the Frank C. Erwin Jr Special Events Center. Mandatory Credit: Ricardo B. Brazziell/American-Statesman via USA TODAY NETWORK
There is no doubt in my mind the Iowa State men’s basketball team has improved since the start of this season.
Steve Prohm’s team has shown a more consistent desire to compete, especially defensively, and looks to be showing promise in some areas in comparison to where they were in the season’s earliest stages, such as the season-opening win over Arkansas Pine Bluff and the loss to South Dakota State.
With that improvement, I’ve started to ask myself what it will take for the Cyclones to find victories in Big 12 play. How much further do they have to go to be consistently competitive night in and night out?
The unfortunate thing about the answer is that there still seems to be a considerable climb left to be made — and this is largely based on the Cyclones’ continued search for a true identity and something they can hang their hat on in every game.
The Big 12 is really good. It always is, but there has been a major shift in the league over the last several seasons in how the teams at the top make their hay.
The teams at the top of this league now are all not only good defensively, but elite at preventing opponents from putting the ball in the basket.
Five Big 12 teams sit inside the top-25 of KenPom’s adjusted defense metric. Four of those five are in the top-15. Two more are inside the top-60.
The Cyclones are No. 95 in that metric, which makes them the second lowest in the league ahead of only Kansas State.
Additionally, there are five Big 12 teams inside the top-20 in adjusted offensive efficiency. Oklahoma State is No. 36, meaning six teams in the league are inside the top-40.
Iowa State is No. 85 in adjusted offensive efficiency.
Six teams in the league are in the top-60 of both offense and defense.
While the Cyclones are improving, they still have not become good enough on either end of the floor to consistently win. They are good enough to be competitive and largely hang around for 40 minutes, as proven by their losses to Baylor and Texas in the last five days, but they have not become good enough to turn games like that–when the league’s top teams don’t play their best–into victories.
We all know just hanging around on any given night is below the standard expected of Iowa State basketball, especially when just hanging around means you’ll likely end up anywhere from 0-18 to 4-14 in Big 12 play.
Texas played far from their best offensive game during Tuesday night’s eight-point win over the Cyclones, but the Longhorns are good enough defensively to compensate for their offensive misfortunes.
This is best exemplified by a stretch in the game in which Texas went on a 10-0 run… that spanned more than five minutes of game time. Iowa State held a one-point lead prior to this run then suddenly found themselves in position to go down double-digits, which they ultimately did before halftime.
Iowa State does not have the luxury of being good enough on either end of the floor to compensate for having an off night on one, especially against good teams.
In the past, the Cyclones could struggle defensively for stretches of games because you knew they are capable of being elite offensively and making up for any defensive misgivings.
That simply is not the case right now.
Most teams in the Big 12 are going to turn games into rock fights based purely on their ability to guard. They will be knockdown, drag-out heavyweight bouts.
The teams at the top of the league are bringing boulders to those rock fights. They’re capable of taking blow after blow for 40 minutes and dishing out a few blows of their own.
Iowa State is not in a position where they’re bringing boulders to the rock right. They’re fighting more like a welterweight in the heavyweight division.
Sure, that fighter might be able to hang around for awhile, but the heavyweight is going to find it within themselves to land the knockout punch in the end.
West Virginia did that in a close game in Morgantown. Baylor did that in a game that was tight up until the last few minutes. Texas did that on Tuesday in Austin.
The reality is until Iowa State is good enough on either offense or defense to compensate for the other having an off night, then they’re going to get beat by the teams in the league’s upper-half and probably even the teams right on the fringe of that group. They’ll be able to do enough to stay in the fight for the first 30-35 minutes, but they will be outlasted by the bigger and stronger fighter in the end.
I have more confidence the Cyclones can beat teams like Kansas State or TCU, which are closer to Iowa State’s ability on both ends of the floor.
Until the Cyclones find a knockout punch to hang their hat on, they’ll simply be a welterweight fighting up a class — and hanging around close will be the best they can do on any given night.