Nov 27, 2022; Portland, Oregon, USA; Iowa State Cyclones guard Jaren Holmes (13) drives to the basket during the second half against Connecticut Huskies guard Andre Jackson Jr. (44) at Moda Center. The Huskies won the Phil Knight Invitational Basketball Tournament 71-53. Mandatory Credit: Troy Wayrynen-USA TODAY Sports
DENVER — It is 4:05 a.m. mountain time as I write this introduction.
I’ve been in Denver since late last night and spent the night in the airport with the final leg of my return journey to Des Moines expected to board in about an hour and a half. I’ve been working thoughts through my brain since Iowa State lost to UConn in the PKI title game late Sunday night, and I’ve sprinkled some of everything throughout the next 2,000 or so words.
My biggest overarching thought is that this weekend was an unquestioned success for Iowa State on both sides of the bracket.
The men weren’t expected to win the tournament anyway, and only had higher odds than another team because the team with the worst odds was from the West Coast Conference.
And, guess what! That team from the West Coast Conference ended up being pretty damn good. So good they got their own bullet point later on in this column.
The teams that everyone was expecting to win this thing turned out to not be very good — or at least not very good right now.
It was a really fun weekend of basketball, and it leaves me feeling like this could be one of the most wide-open college basketball seasons of my lifetime.
The presumed favorite going into the year (North Carolina) is vulnerable. Gonzaga doesn’t seem to have quite the same level of firepower this season. We’ve already turned over a significant portion of the preseason AP top-five with two new additions this week that barely started the season inside the top 25.
We’re three weeks into the season and we’ve already seen a team jump 19 spots in the AP Poll and another drop 17 spots in the same poll.
Anarchy? Nope, just college basketball.
Let’s hit quick.
Iowa State men quick hits
*** I think the biggest thing to take away from Iowa State’s tournament-ending loss to UConn on Sunday is this… UConn is a damn good basketball team.
Iowa State very well may have a good team, too, but Danny Hurley’s bunch is in a different category right now. They’re playing at an elite level right now and rightfully lept into the top 10 this week.
They’re insanely deep in the backcourt, they’re talented and deep in the frontcourt, and they’re physical and tough and skilled as heck. If they stay healthy, this team will be in the mix to win the entire dance next March.
*** I’m not sure I can remember a game that was more insanely lopsided on the glass than Iowa State’s loss to UConn. It is especially staggering when you realize Iowa State was in the game for most of the night.
Yeah, UConn punched the Cyclones in the mouth, but they kept fighting back even as the Huskies corralled offensive rebound after offensive rebound. I mean, seriously, the group grabbed 21 offensive boards to Iowa State’s 19 total rebounds in the game.
This is an area that will need to get better fast for Iowa State, though. Not because every team on Iowa State’s schedule will suddenly start destroying them on the glass, but teams like Texas Tech, West Virginia and Baylor all could most certainly do that.
I was especially disappointed to see the lack of activity on the glass from the frontcourt. Osun Osunniyi adding three offensive rebounds, Robert Jones having one defensive rebound and Hason Ward getting one offensive and one defensive rebound aren’t going to cut it.
I know those three probably have the most difficult job of clearing out the opposing teams’ bigs with box outs so guards can swoop in to clean up the mess, but there comes a point when someone just has to go get the freaking basketball.
I feel confident Andre Jackson and Donovan Clingan weren’t worried too much about driving opponents out of the lane when the ball was coming off the rim. They went and got the freaking basketball.
As a result, they had 13 rebounds and 10 rebounds, a piece, respectively.
Those two alone out-rebounded Iowa State.
Has to get better.
*** The stretch Jaren Holmes put together towards the end of Iowa State’s win over North Carolina last Friday was one for the ages. The St. Bonaventure transfer totally dominated the game once the Cyclones started to spread out the floor with Holmes and Osun Osunniyi going to work in the pick-and-roll.
You can see how much chemistry there is between those two when they run their pick and rolls, too. There’s a level of timing that comes with executing that with the same person over and over; that is just a thing of beauty.
*** How confident am I that Caleb Grill’s breakout performance against North Carolina can become closer to a norm than an aberration? I probably wouldn’t bet money on it, but that is what made Grill’s 31-point breakout against the No. 1 Tar Heels so impressive.
It was completely unpredictable — and to predict Grill will do anything like that again this season would probably be misguided when you consider the up-and-down nature of Grill’s game basically since the first time he stepped foot on campus in Ames in 2019.
Now, I will say, I think when Grill is shooting the ball with the level of confidence that he did against North Carolina then he’s a completely different player. There’s something to be said for shooting the ball like you know it is going in.
Caleb saw a few go in early in that game and he started to shoot the ball like he knew it was going in before it left his hand. Two of his last shots of the game — the deep, deep 3-pointer from the top of the key and the fading-to-the-side jumper that put Iowa State in front late — were the two best of his career in an Iowa State uniform, in my opinion.
He just rose up and shot the ball without putting an ounce of thought into it.
Now, Iowa State needs to figure out how to get him to shoot the ball like that in Hilton Coliseum.
*** I can’t even imagine how difficult it is to game plan from an Iowa State perspective when you have no clue what you’re going to get from Gabe Kalscheur in any given game. We’ve seen him go for 23 points and look confident doing it already during this season, but we’ve also seen him struggle mightily and give the team one point in a game this season, too.
The Cyclones need him to find some level of consistency in the middle. He doesn’t need to give them 30 points a night, but they need him to not fall into spots where he’ll only give them one or zero. He’s too important to everything they try to do offensively.
*** I was disappointed to see some slippage in Iowa State’s rim protection against North Carolina and UConn. Those were the frontcourt’s first real tests of how well they could keep teams from scoring around the rim, and it would be hard to feel confident giving them a grade any higher than a D.
North Carolina shot nearly 60 percent from inside the 3-point line against Iowa State, and the only person who could stop preseason All-American Armando Bacot was his teammates, who basically quit throwing him the ball after three straight second-half turnovers.
He was still 5-of-6 from the field and dominating the paint, though.
The Cyclones had made considerable strides in this area during the team’s first four games, and I’m still confident this team’s rim protection will be considerably better than last year’s in the long run. It was just a little disappointing to see the first teams they played with competent paint presence beat them up in that part of the floor.
Iowa State women quick hits
*** Just when you thought Bill Fennelly’s team could be almost immune to shooting slumps, they go 9-of-35 from 3-point range and blow a big lead against North Carolina in the PKI championship game.
The starters alone went 6-of-25 from deep. If you’re looking for where things went wrong for Iowa State in that game, this would be an easy point to start.
It also didn’t help that Deja Kelly went into beast mode to get her team back into the game.
*** I will stand by what I said on Twitter during the first half of that game on Sunday. When Iowa State is right, they’re good enough to win a national championship. They’ve got that much talent and that many weapons.
They just have to be right, and we all know how difficult that is to predict when you start looking at that bracket in March. But, there’s no doubt in my mind Iowa State has enough talent to be a third weekend of the NCAA Tournament team.
The tournament just comes down to things breaking your way. If things broke Iowa State’s way, we could be having a party on Lincoln Way next spring.
*** Stephanie Soares is as impressive as any women’s college center I’ve seen when she’s really rolling. You can tell the physicality of making the leap to Power 5 bothers her at times, though. That’s just part of the adjustment.
She’s got all the skill she needs to be as impactful as any player in college basketball.
A couple of random notes…
*** There’s no doubt that UConn was the most pleasantly surprising team out in Portland, but there are a couple of candidates for the most disappointing.
North Carolina looks like a team that knows they can turn it on when the lights get bright. Hubert Davis’ team has so many veterans and too much talent to not figure it out eventually, but they’re going to stress the fanbase out in the process.
I thought Michigan State looked tired in their tournament opener against Alabama and that obviously derailed my pre-tournament favorite. They played a lot of big games in a short period of time so I can’t blame them. Tom Izzo still has a team worth monitoring during Big Ten play.
I am very interested to see where Villanova is headed after this week. Kyle Neptune’s team badly needs Justin Moore back to steady this ship. I walked away really unimpressed with the Wildcats for a lot of different reasons. I thought it seemed like they mailed it in and went back to Philly early after losing to Iowa State in overtime. There’s a lot of season left, but it wouldn’t shock me if that thing got way off the rails.
*** Nate Oats is one of the best coaches in college basketball and he’s got one of the best teams in college basketball again. If you’re a college basketball fan and don’t know the name Brandon Miller today, believe me, you will.
*** I couldn’t have been more impressed with what Shantay Legans is doing out at Portland. That’s a team that plays a fun brand of basketball, and they’re a veteran group with some big game experience, too. The Pilots play in a tough league to make the dance as an at-large, but last year proved it is possible. It wouldn’t shock me at all to see Portland win a game in the tournament if they can handle their business and get in.
Three games to watch this week…
1 — Texas vs. Creighton (Thursday, 7:00 P.M.)
One of the best defenses in college basketball vs. one of the best offenses. One of the sport’s best defensive coaches against one of the sport’s best offensive minds. Talented players up and down both rosters. Grab the popcorn.
2 — West Virginia @ Xavier (Saturday, 6:30 p.m.)
West Virginia has kicked the crap out of basically everyone they’ve played this season besides Purdue, who thoroughly kicked the crap out of the Mountaineers. Xavier isn’t anything special, but this game should be interesting between two teams trying to figure out who they are this year.
3 — Oklahoma @ Villanova (Saturday, 12:30 p.m.) & Oklahoma State @ UConn (Thursday, 6:30 p.m.)
A couple of common opponent measuring stick games for the Cyclones! Villanova is currently a one-point favorite over Oklahoma on KenPom and that game will have one of the slowest paces of any in the country this year. The Huskies are 10-point favorites over OSU, but Mike Boynton’s bevvy of guards will surely have something to say about that.
NBA note for the road…
*** If you’re a Cyclone fan looking for a reason to get excited about the NBA, I’d challenge you to look into the season Tyrese Haliburton is putting together right now for the Indiana Pacers. As of this writing, he leads the entire league in assists and is No. 4 in the league in steals per game.
On Monday night in LA, Haliburton secured a crucial offensive rebound late in the game and then whipped a pass to a wide-open shooter for a game-winner. He’s been a better pro than even the wildest of hopes could have seen coming, and he appears on track to earn his first All-Star bid this season (or at the very least come really close).
Haliburton and the Pacers will visit his former team, the Sacramento Kings, for their next game on Wednesday.