Uncertainty reigns as ISU’s patchwork lineup prepares for Saturday’s game at Mississippi State

Iowa State head coach Steve Prohm watches his Cyclones from the sideline in the second half against Kansas State on Tuesday, Dec. 15, 2020, at Hilton Coliseum in Ames.© Bryon Houlgrave/The Register via Imagn Content Services, LLC

Will Iowa State be down four starters again when they travel to Mississippi State on Saturday?

Probably. Mostly. With maybe one exception. Or not.

“I don’t know how much actual change (comes on Saturday),” said Cyclones coach Steve Prohm, whose team (2-8) tips off against the Bulldogs (9-8) at 5 p.m. Saturday in Starkville. “Possibly one guy. We could have one more guy back possibly, (but) whether they play or not, I’m not sure. We’ll have more guys on the trip for sure. It’s just the ability to play —that’s not certain for sure but we will have more guys on the bench for sure.”

 Nothing’s certain during this ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Nothing except for uncertainly. That’s especially true for ISU, which was already struggling to establish any rhythm or identity before losing a total of six players before Monday’s 81-60 loss to Oklahoma State.

 The four starters — Solomon Young, Tre Jackson, Jalen Coleman-Lands and Javan Johnson — were obviously sorely missed, but barring an unforeseen bit of good luck, will remain bench-bound (or homebound) until further notice.

 Coleman-Lands, the Cyclones’ second-leading scorer and top 3-point shooter among starters, has been getting work in, Prohm said.

 But when asked if that meant he might be the one guy — possibly — of those forced to sit out who could be eligible to play in Saturday’s Big 12/SEC Challenge game, Prohm could not say, ‘Yes.’ 

 That’s how uncertain everything is, especially when it comes to pandemic-based protocols, and monitoring and safeguarding player safety.

 “Maybe,” Prohm said when asked about the potential availability of Coleman-Lands. “There’s a lot of factors and protocol involved in this, so it’s just so hard. I can’t really say yea or nay on that stuff.”

 Not knowing much has become the harsh reality for the Cyclones and a myriad of teams across the country. The prevailing approach to all of it: Adjust as needed, do the best with what you’ve got and see what happens.

 So that likely means ISU will be both (a) extremely challenged size-wise, and (b) continuing to rely on veteran point guard and leading scorer Rasir Bolton, one true big man in George Conditt IV, and a trio of true freshmen in Darlinstone Dubar, Jaden Walker and Dudley Blackwell.

 The silver lining? those freshman are playing valuable minutes and showing flashes of the great potential they each possess.

 “I feel like it’s just allowing us to learn each other better,” Walker said while acknowledging that missing four starters is ‘pretty tough.’ “Like, learning how to play without the four starters, that we have that are missing, we’ve just got to build off of that. And then once they get back, add on that and then come together, and it’ll translate later.”

 What does that mean for Saturday?

 No one knows, but Prohm said Mississippi State’s size up front — Tolu Smith and Abdul Ado have combined for 51 blocked shot and average 8.6 and 6.6 rebounds per game, respectively — will be the toughest element the Cyclones must contend with.

 Guards D.J. Stewart (17.6 points per game) and Iverson Molinar (17.2 points per game) will be difficult to contain, as well.

 “Obviously you know coach (Ben) Howland’s gonna be really good defensively,” Prohm said. “They’re physical. I like their guard play. … But I think the biggest thing that they present for us (is) just the physicality and size up front. I think that’s gonna be a big, big key for us. We’ve got to keep them off their sweet spots around the glass and we’ve got to rebound. That’s for sure.”

 That also remains a tall task for ISU, which has struggled on the boards all season and needs the 6-10 Conditt to stay out of foul trouble. That’s a rare absolute certainty in this topsy-turvy season, as every other player available stands 6-6 or under, but continue to grow with experience. 

 “I feel like we just have to continue to grow as a team and trust in each other and just play harder each day,” Dubar said. “Just being consistent. It starts in practice as being consistent and just having each other’s back. Play hard and it’ll translate to the games.”