Between now and the beginning of conference action in Big 12 men’s basketball, HeartlandCollegeSports.com contributor Matthew Postins will watch at least one game for each Big 12 team and assess where each team stands in the final weeks before league action. Today it’s the Iowa State Cyclones.
Iowa State has certainly been one of the power teams in the Big 12 the past few years. Riding a wave of six straight NCAA Tournament berths, head coach Steve Prohm has a Cyclones team that appears poised for a seventh. I watched their 94-80 win over Northern Illinois and I ended up with these five takeaways.
The guards will drive this team where it wants to go
And the Cyclones have a great trio. Redshirt junior Nick Weiler-Babb has stabilized the offense since moving to point guard before the season’s third game. The change in the offense’s efficiency is insane. ESPN noted on the broadcast that the Cyclones’ points per game had gone up by 25 points since Weiler-Babb took over at point. The team’s shooting percentage was up by 8 percent and the 3-point percentage was up by 11 percent. This has proven to be an impactful move by Prohm. The Cyclones still have the steady senior leadership of Donovan Jackson, who lit up the field at the Puerto Rico Tip-off and leads the Cyclones in scoring to this point (17.0 ppg heading into the Cy-Hawk showdown with Iowa). But the emergence of Lindell Wigginton, the true freshman from Dartmouth, Nova Scotia, should concern other Big 12 teams. Lindell set a career high for points in the NIU game, scoring 28 points and igniting an ISU offense that was having trouble putting away the Huskies. All three guards played at least 32 minutes and when they were on the floor together, especially in the second half, they became a nightmare for NIU to defend. All three can shoot the 3 (though Jackson and Wigginton are more specialists in that department), all three can handle the ball and all three can defend (Wigginton showed some great off-ball instincts in the second half). Still, when it comes to Big 12 action, I think you want Weiler-Babb handling the ball most of the time. His assist-to-turnover numbers are terrific right now (52 assists to 15 turnovers). This is his first season starting and he looks right at home running the offense. If you’re an opposing Big 12 team, the first thing you have to figure out is how you’re going to slow these three down. Whether it’s in halfcourt or in transition, that’s going to be a tall order. NIU played man all night and the Cyclones had them broken down by the second half.
The Cyclones do have a “big” problem
The problem is they really don’t have ‘one’ big man. They have parts of a big man in a couple of different players. Solomon Young, the 6-foot-8, 245-pound sophomore, played more like an interior defender and shot-blocker on Monday night and only scored five points in 24 minutes as a starter. However, those were high-energy minutes near the basket. He’s a willing defender and rebounder and blocked three shots. Then there’s redshirt freshman Cameron Lard, the 6-foot-9 forward who had just as many minutes but scored 14 points. Lard is capable of playing inside, but he’s more at home at power forward, running the floor and making things happen outside the paint. The Cyclones don’t have a 7-footer, so between Solomon, Lard and 6-foot-6 forward Jeff Beverly, the Cyclones are going to have to find a way to make it work. I was most intrigued when Solomon and Lard were on the floor together. Solomon is capable of big games (note his double-double against Kansas State last year) and his interior defense will be key in Big 12 action. Having Lard on the floor at the same time, drawing defenders out of the paint, may end up opening up chances for Solomon on offense, as well.
Are the Cyclones going to have a problem with small guards?
I hate making a value judgment on just one game. But the Cyclones were bedeviled defensively by NIU’s Nathan German, a 6-foot jitterbug of a guard that dropped 28 points on NIU in just 29 minutes. Some of this was just German being special. Other times he took advantage of defensive lapses by ISU that need to be corrected. Having already seen Kansas (and getting ready to watch both West Virginia and Texas next), how you defend guards in the Big 12 is going to go a long way toward your success or failure. You’re going to give up points to special players, but you can’t allow yourself to be dominated by them. And there were times when German was dominant in this game. The Cyclones can’t afford that consistently in the Big 12.
The youth movement is on in Ames
With Lard, Wigginton, Young and guard Terrence Lewis — who played 19 minutes and scored nine points — the Cyclones played four players that were freshmen, redshirt freshmen or sophomores. That was half of their rotation players in the game. That isn’t an anomaly. All four are getting solid playing time in non-conference and you should expect Lard, Wigginton and Young to get similar minutes in Big 12 action. For Lewis, he feels like a bench player at this point, but as a true freshman, the fact that he’s drawing 13 minutes a game is validation from Prohm that Lewis is considered a piece of the puzzle.
Is depth an issue?
I made this point when I watched Kansas. The Jayhawks only played eight against Syracuse. The Cyclones only played eight against NIU. The Cyclones have played 10 different players this season, but their starting five — Jackson, Wigginton, Weiler-Babb, Beverly and Young — have been consistent. Hans Brase, a transfer from Princeton, is quality depth for the frontcourt. But I didn’t see either Zoran Talley Jr. (stress fracture) or Jakolby Long (concussion) in this game, so it’s hard to see where they fit in the puzzle at this time. Talley Jr. has played more minutes, but Long appears to be a far better shooter, as he’s 5-of-7 from 3-point range in limited duty.
Iowa State was a fun team to watch. Their guard play could end up being some of the best in the Big 12. Up front they’re undersized but energetic. As a team, they play good man defense. I’d like to see ISU expand their rotation a bit going into Big 12 action. They’re going to need it in order to push Kansas the way they did a year ago.
Next: I’ll tackle either Texas or West Virginia.