Iowa State's first two games without the services of Naz Mitrou-Long have not been pretty. The Cyclones limped to a 78-64 victory over a terrible Arkansas-Pine Bluff team and suffered their first loss of the season against Northern Iowa on Saturday night in Wells Fargo Arena. Those performances have caused the ISU fan base to become deeply concerned about their beloved team, especially with a looming Big 12 schedule that features some heavy hitters - most notably No 2. Kansas and No. 3 Oklahoma.
In fact, the Cyclones open up their conference slate with one of the toughest games on the schedule all year, taking on the Sooners in Norman on January 2. Before that, they'll have to travel to Cincinnati to play the No. 23 Bearcats on Tuesday in their first true road game of the season.
This team has a lot of growing up to do if they're to avoid the type of disappointment they suffered in last season's NCAA Tournament game against UAB.
What worries me is that Mitrou-Long is one of, if not THE best player on the team when it comes to talking some sense into his teammates when they need a pep talk or have to try something new on offense or defense. Sure, he can still do some of that from the bench, but you're lying to yourself if you believe that he can be just as effective from the sidelines as he can from on the court.
While it appears that losing Mitrou-Long for the year is a stomachable blow from a positional and statistical standpoint, the senior's on-court leadership and attitude are already beginning to be sorely missed.
The Arkansas-Pine Bluff team that Iowa State beat by 14? Now-No. 1 Michigan State eviscerated them by 46 points (92-46) back on November 20. The Cincinnati squad that ISU plays Tuesday? They beat APB by 49 points just two days later.
The transitive property of sports isn't a science, but knowing that two other top-25 teams beat a common opponent by more than triple the winning deficit that Iowa State had against them is certainly a cause for concern. It also makes you wonder if the Cyclones should even be a top-25 team right now after seeing their most recent performances.
Some people immediately looked at head coach Steve Prohm following the loss to UNI. Surely it had to be his fault for the underwhelming performance, right?
I think that's foolish.
Remember... The Panthers played an amazing game. They shot the lights out from 3-point range, and much of that was out of Iowa State's control on the defensive end of the floor.
But a KenPom study showed defenses only have about 17% control on opp 3fg%. https://t.co/W8ZY4HKzDR— Kirk Haaland (@khaal53) December 20, 2015
After all, they were only a Monte Morris made floater from overtime - and potentially an ISU victory.
Losing to UNI by two points isn't that bad of a loss. But one doesn't have to be a basketball expert to see that ISU isn't playing on the level of the teams they've been sitting next to in the polls for the past few weeks. At times, the Cyclones have looked bad, if not terrible, on both the offensive and defensive sides of the floor.
Could these last two games (and the first half of the Iowa game) be an abnormality? Or, are they indicative of a larger trend from players that have yet to learn their lesson, despite telling the media and fans otherwise for the past year?
The old "we won't let this happen again" line has been used after almost every loss to inferior teams since the South Carolina game last year (a 64-60 loss to the Gamecocks). The loss to Northern Iowa isn't as bad as last year's defeats at the hands of USC, Texas Tech and UAB, but it's once again brought a disturbing characteristic of this team to the forefront.
Playing down to teams that Iowa State is clearly better than.
It happens in different ways. Whether it's letting bad teams keep the score close into the second half, or even getting down to them by double digits in the first half as we've seen against Iowa and UNI.
At the end of last year, the Cyclones became known for their amazing comebacks. Down by 20 points? No matter... Iowa State would come back in a hurry and pull out the victory at the last second.
It's both thrilling and a nightmare for fans. And even though "a win's a win," playing like that is not a recipe for sustained success... Especially when it catches up to the team in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.
What concerns me is it appears that it's become a habit for our team - a team that still contains the same nucleus of players from last year's Cardiac Clones. If ISU wants to make a return appearance in the top-5 of the polls this year (they're almost guaranteed to drop out when the new polls are released later today), they're going to have to develop a new habit.
No more letting bad teams hang around. No more first half deficits.
From the opening buzzer... Sweep the leg.
The closest we've seen to that type of performance recently was Iowa State's game against Virginia Tech nearly a month ago. The Cyclones played arguably their best half of basketball all year in a first half that resulted in a 52-30 halftime lead. They came out focused and attacked the Hokies with an offense that featured great spacing, attacking from inside and outside and making the right passes. Virginia Tech was hit by a freight train from the opening tip.
Lately, we've seen less and less of that from ISU.
Right now, this team isn't a top-5 team. Not even close. They're talented enough to warrant being ranked, but if they were to go up against a Michigan State, Kansas or Oklahoma Tuesday instead of Cincinnati, they'd almost certainly be served a heaping slice of humble pie. Luckily, they have two weeks before they actually have to play one of those teams.
The good news is, I can't see this year's seniors going out like they did last year. Georges Niang, especially, won't let that happen. They're going to make an effort to get better, from both a chemistry and "killer instinct" perspective as the year goes on. If it takes until the NCAA Tournament for everything to come together completely, so be it.
It's just that I, and pretty much every other Cyclone fan, want it to happen sooner rather than later.
The talent is there. The coaching is there. All that remains is for this group of skilled players to come together and begin playing as a unit. Offensively and defensively.
That's the key word. We've seen remarkable play in spurts (spurtability, if you will). When that spurtability turns into consistency, that's when we'll see the potential of this team explode.
Because when they're playing their best, they can play with - and beat - any team in the country. But the frustrating part is they can also struggle against any team when they're not on their game.
For the sake of Cyclone fans everywhere, I hope Coach Prohm can whip this team into a consistent winner without all the dramatics. Preferably by, say, Tuesday.
Our hearts would appreciate it.