And just like that, March arrived...
What a difference a week makes, right? Sure enough, only 7 days ago, Iowa State was riding a 3-game winning streak and appeared to be well on its way to at least tying for the regular season Big 12 title. Now, the Cyclones sit in a muddled pack among the top half of the conference and could finish as high as 2nd in the league, or fall all the way to 5th place, which is the spot Iowa State was picked at and we all laughably scoffed at back in October when the pre-season coach's poll was released.
Instead of coming roaring into March like a lion, Fred Hoiberg and crew are limping in like a wounded lamb. This team and fan base alike have been dreaming about this March ever since last year's team walked off the floor of Madison Square Garden a little less than a year ago, but now that it's here, it's anyone guess as to what will happen.
The last three years of Iowa State basketball have represented an upward trajectory, each year building on the prior year's success. For most of the '14-'15 season, it's appeared to be really no different. The Cyclones entered the year ranked in the top 15, never slipped to lower than 20 and even cracked the top ten at one point. At times, this team has looked like the dark horse Final Four contender we all thought they could be.
But this Iowa State team isn't without its flaws. It's tough to really pin down any singular flaw this team has, but if you had to simplify it, The Mayor has a team on his hands that's capable of playing like shit in stretches (this is the type of ground-breaking insight that you come to WRNL for).
Catching Up With the Sooners
Oklahoma is without a doubt one of the hottest teams in the country, winning 8 of their last 9 games and as a result, they find themselves alone in 2nd place in the league and just one game back of Kansas. This is an enormous week for the Sooners as they hit the road to battle Iowa State on Monday night and cap things off by hosting the 1st-place Jayhawks on Saturday. Keeping the possibility of at least tying for the Big 12 title means winning in Ames tonight.
Now, record alone does not always tell the complete story and in Oklahoma's case, there could be some hidden blemishes. In their last 6 games, the Sooners have feasted mostly on the bottom half of the league. In that span, they've beaten TCU twice, survived an overtime scare at Texas Tech, scraped together a narrow home win over Texas, dropped an overtime game at Kansas State and downed Iowa State three weeks ago. Aside from the win over the Cyclones, Oklahoma hasn't exactly been dominating, but at the end of the day, the "Ws" are all that matter.
Buddy Hield continues to be the most explosive scorer in the league and is still this blogger's pick for the conference's player of the year (although Perry Ellis is gaining some serious ground). In Big 12 play, Hield is averaging 18.1 points per game and is shooting just over 38% from outside.
The inside duo of Ryan Spangler and Tashawn Thomas are among the league's best. Spangler is averaging 10.4 points per game and pulling down 7.6 rebounds. Thomas is scoring 11.2 points a night and grabbing 6.2 rebounds per contest.
On the perimeter, Isaiah Cousins is among the more under-appreciated players in the Big 12. He's been lethal from deep in league action, hitting on nearly 46% of his 3-point attempts.
The Prior Meeting
For about a ten minute stretch in the first half of the game in Norman, Iowa State executed "Hoiball" to near perfection. The Cyclones simply could not miss and while Oklahoma tried to keep pace, there was no stopping the Iowa State juggernaut as the Cyclones jumped out to a 42-32 lead. But then it was the Sooners' turn. Oklahoma used a 14-4 run to end the half and knot things up at 46-all going into the break.
In the second half, Oklahoma ripped apart a suddenly shaky Iowa State defense, shooting 57.6% from the floor and the Cyclones were unable to keep pace as the Sooners stretched the lead to as much as 20 points, coming away with a 94-83 victory.
Oklahoma had five players in double figures, led by Tashawn Thomas' 22 points and 11 rebounds. Spangler also recorded a double-double, finishing with 14 points and 12 rebounds. Cousins finished with 19 points while Hield tallied 17 points of his own. Frank Booker came off the bench to score 14 points, while knocking down 4-6 from deep.
For Iowa State, Dustin Hogue scored 19 points and hit 4-5 from outside. Jameel McKay finished with 16 and 9 in 33 minutes. Both Naz Long and Bryce Dejean-Jones scored 14 points and each nailed 4-7 from 3-point range.
Georges Niang and Monte Morris each struggled on the night, combining to hit just 6-19 shots for only 13 points between the pair. Morris finished with just 2 assists, his lowest output of the year. Niang grabbed 6 rebounds and dished out 4 assists, but also had 4 turnovers.
A Word on the Seniors
For the trio of Dustin Hogue, Daniel Edozie and Bryce Dejean-Jones, this will be the final time they lace 'em up in Hilton Coliseum. As far as Senior Nights go, this won't be quite as powerful as last year's edition, which saw the closing of the home career of one the greatest Cyclones ever in Melvin Ejim (not to mention a spectacular single season from DeAndre Kane), but it should be an eventful evening nonetheless.
Edozie has not played much since McKay became eligible, but the fact that he's made it to this point is nothing short of remarkable. Once homeless, Edozie found a love of the game of basketball, which provided an avenue for him to get an education and more importantly, get a chance to better his life.
For Hogue, this will culminate a career that has seen him become one of the more important cogs in recent Cyclone history. I don't know that anyone (not named Fred Hoiberg) knew what we were getting in Hogue when he committed to Iowa State. The former Indian Hill Community College standout seemed like a tweener and a role player at best, but he's ended up being so much more.
Hogue led Iowa State in rebounding as a junior (tied with Ejim) as he pulled down 8.4 boards per game. Ejim, Kane and Niang received most of the headlines, but Hogue was equally effective, scoring 11.6 points per game during his first year in Ames. Hogue saved his best play for the post-season, though, averaging over 17 points per game in Iowa State's six post-season games, capped off by his 34-point performance against UConn in the Sweet 16.
Hogue's numbers have taken a slight dip as a senior on a deeper team, but he's become a reliable outside threat, hitting 43.4% of his treys and has started every game of his career.
Finally, this brings us to Bryce Dejean-Jones. Mercurial and temperamental, Dejean-Jones would never be classified as a fan-favorite, but heading into this final stretch, he might just be the X-factor for Iowa State's post-season run.
Dejean-Jones, averaged a little more than 17 points per game in his first 7 contests as a Cyclone, but then ran a foul of the law a little more than 24 hours prior to the game at Iowa and was suspended for the in-state battle with the Hawkeyes.The charges were dropped and Dejean-Jones reclaimed his starting spot, but only temporarily.
For the last 7 games, Dejean-Jones has been coming off the bench with mixed results, but he appears to have bought into his role and more importantly, the team chemistry doesn't seem as if it's been altered negatively.
Often compared to Kane, Dejean-Jones hasn't quite lived up to those impossibly unfair standards, but marks yet another successful reclamation project for Hoiberg. Barring some type of cataclysmic meltdown or sustained stretch of pantheon-level play in the next month, Dejean-Jones' Cyclone career will likely be mostly a minor footnote, and that's okay.
Dejean-Jones has served a purpose on this year's team and without him in the fold, I'm not so sure that Iowa State wouldn't have another loss or two on the ledger at this point.
So Who Wins?
It's almost ironic that these two teams have identical records, because at this point, it doesn't seem like they're anything alike. Oklahoma appears to be mostly steady and trending upward while Iowa State is unpredictable and enigmatic. Perhaps that's all perception and just a product of the 18-game conference schedule, but as they say, perception is often reality.
Up until a week ago, I would have argued with anyone that this Iowa State team had two absolute truths; one being that they most certainly would not lose at home and secondly, that Georges Niang is every bit deserving of his reputation as "the closer".
Two games later, both of those notions have been flipped upside down. First, there was the loss at home to Baylor, which was and still is stunning, but then there were also the stumbles of Niang down the stretch in each of Iowa State's last two losses.
Now, it should be noted that for most of Saturday's game against Kansas State, Niang was outstanding, scoring 21-points and hitting a career-high, five 3-pointers. But one awful inbounds pass is all that anyone is going to remember.
The fact is, in his last two games, Niang has 9 turnovers and has had critical late-game gaffes in each contest. It's unfair to pin each loss on Niang because there were a host of other things that went wrong in each game, but these are the things we remember.
On Monday night, "the closer" has to return and it's critically important that Niang gets back to making winning plays. I think he does and I also think that this Iowa State team, who's back is against the wall, refuses to let another home loss happen.
Iowa State 84 - Oklahoma 77
Tip: 8 PM CST
Radio: Cyclone Radio Network
Cyclones.com Game Notes: Available here
Oklahoma SB Nation Site: Crimson and Cream Machine