Reese Strickland-USA TODAY Sports
With Iowa State set to open conference play at #6 Kansas on Wednesday night, I can't help but continue to come back to one word when thinking about this year's Cyclone team: Trust. Through 13 games, we've seen a sometimes unreliable and sometimes shaky effort and it makes you wonder; do we as fans trust that this team will come together like last year's? Does Fred Hoiberg trust Korie Lucious and Will Clyburn to execute his game plan? Do the guys on the team trust each other to rise to the occasion?
Ideally, these questions aren't being asked at this point in the season, but it's really no different than what we saw one year ago. Going into conference play last year, Royce White was still shaking off the rust and Chris Allen wasn't exactly house broken. That team came together and became something special and gradually earned the trust of their head coach as well as the entire fan base. Does this team have that type of capability and potential?
There's two ways to look at how this season has played out to date. On one hand, Iowa State has not played well away from Hilton Coliseum, especially defensively and who knows what you're going to get from Lucious and Clyburn at this point. On the other hand, Iowa State doesn't have any bad losses and actually has a manageable RPI and has only shown a sliver of their potential. Again, do you trust that this team can win when it matters?
I've been saying this for weeks and I still believe it to be true; Iowa State will get out to a 5-1 start in conference play. I don't think there's any chance in hell that ISU can steal one in Allen Fieldhouse, but after that, the Cyclones return home to host Texas and West Virginia, who provide a stiff challenge, but you have to like ISU in those games in Hilton. From there, it's consecutive trips to the state of Texas to take on the two worst teams in the conference in TCU and Texas Tech. Capping off the opening third of conference play is a home date with Kansas State on January 26th. The Wildcats look tough, but again, it's a home game for ISU. The level play is going to have to be better than what we've seen, but those six games are manageable.
Getting off to a hot start will be key. The Big 12 should be good enough to secure five bids for the NCAA tournament, but if things play out like last year, a sixth bid might be up for grabs. Kansas appears to be a lock at this point and Kansas State, Oklahoma State and Baylor all look the part. That means that Iowa State could be battling the likes of Texas, Oklahoma and West Virginia for that last spot or two and you can argue that West Virginia might be out of the running at this point. Building a solid cushion gives Iowa State breathing room. Texas snuck in last year with a 9-9 conference record, but did so on the merit of their non-conference strength of schedule. Iowa State's non-conference slate wasn't bad, but the Cyclones won't get that type of benefit if they're on the bubble come March and only won nine conference games. I think it's going to take a 10-8 or 11-7 conference record and possibly but not necessarily a win in the Big 12 tournament for Iowa State to land a bid.
In the interim, here's what we need to see to trust that this team can go dancing...
- Protect Hilton - Iowa State went 8-1 at home during conference play a year ago and might need to duplicate that effort or be 7-2 at worst if they want to make back-to-back trips to the tournament.
- Avoid the bad loss - Simply put, Iowa State has to sweep both Texas Tech and TCU and can't lose at home to a team that might be on the wrong side of the bubble like Oklahoma or West Virginia.
- A signature road win would be nice - ISU doesn't have to have a winning road record (as last year's 4-5 record shows), but the late road win at Kansas State really boosted the Cyclones' profile. Winning a game at Kansas, Kansas State, Oklahoma State, Baylor or Texas would look mighty nice on the resume come March.
- Korie and Will, it's time - On the surface, Will Clyburn is having a pretty good year. He's averaging 14.1 points, 7.4 rebounds and is shooting 81% from the line. He absolutely can not disappear like he did against Cincinnati or Iowa though. He has to consistently be Iowa State's best player night in and night out from here forward. As for Lucious, his tasks and goals haven't changed. He has to take care of the ball and lead this team. When he's playing well, Iowa State can be very difficult to beat, but it's his lapses in focus that have stood out thus far.
- Supporting Cast - Iowa State has benefited from excellent contributions off the bench from Tyrus McGee and Georges Niang. McGee is the top 3-point marksman in the conference, shooting 48% from outside. Niang has provided a spark offensively and his heady play will need to continue. Melvin Ejim is currently leading the conference in rebounding and that will only become more important as the competition picks up. Those three will play an integral role in any future success Iowa State has, but it's Chris Babb that could be the X-factor. The senior defensive ace has had a decent season thus far, but beyond stats, Fred Hoiberg needs Babb to be a leader and make the clutch plays that don't always show up in the stat sheet. Babb is one of the few guys on this team that looks to make the extra pass, that will take a charge, and that will speak up in the huddle. He's a glue guy in every sense of the word.
Looking at Kansas
I said earlier that Iowa State doesn't stand a chance in hell at winning in Lawrence, and while that's mostly true, it's not entirely true. It's the most difficult game on the schedule every year and this year is no different. It takes a special type of effort to win in the Phog, especially against Bill Self, who has more conference titles (8) than home losses (7) during his tenure at KU.
After the Jayhawks' close call against Temple on Sunday, Iowa State will likely get Kansas' full attention, which is just dandy. Here are the biggest keys to winning on Wednesday night:
- Play full defensive possessions - Kansas has the unique ability to adjust their offensive tempo based on their opponent. You want to play fast? They'll oblige. You want to slow it down and shorten the game? Bill Self will X-and-O you to death. We know that under Fred Hoiberg, Iowa State is unlikely to milk the shot clock, which makes it all the more important to step up the defensive effort, both in transition and in the half court. The Cyclones have been susceptible to allowing opponents into the lane as of late and have struggled defending the post. That simply can't happen in Allen Fieldhouse.
- Get to the line - Easier said than done on the road, but it's a must. In each of ISU's three losses, their opponent had more free throw attempts. If you can get Jeff Withey into foul trouble, that's a bonus, but good luck. Withey, who's leading the nation in blocks at 5.2 per game has only committed 16 fouls in 13 games.
- Take care of the damn ball - Temple only committed four turnovers on Sunday and as a result, was able to push Kansas for nearly a full 40 minutes. Iowa State is going to commit more than 4 turnovers on Wednesday night, that is a fact. If they can limit that number to 10 though, well then we might have a game.