There's simply no way to ease into conference play and Iowa State will find that out the hard way on Saturday night. After wrapping up non-conference play with an 11-1 record, the #11 Cyclones will travel to Norman to battle #3 Oklahoma in what will be the biggest match up in the nation on a loaded day of college basketball action.
Iowa State is 7-3 in their last 10 games against the Sooners, but all three losses came in Norman and the Cyclones haven't won in the Lloyd Noble Center since February 4th, 2011. In those three losses, the Sooners' average margin of victory was 11 points.
Scouting the Sooners
It all starts with Buddy Hield. If they handed out the Wooden Award after non-conference play, it would be tough to find anyone more deserving than Hield. The 6'4" senior has been remarkable. I mentioned a few weeks ago just how impressive it was that Georges Niang was threatening to join the coveted 50-40-90 club, well Hield might accomplish the unthinkable and challenge to become a member of the 50-50-90 club. To date, Hield is shooting 51.5% from the field, 52.9% from deep and 90% from the stripe. He is the top rated player in the country according to Ken Pomeroy's metrics and if there's a gap in his game, it's yet to have been exploited.
But as impressive as Hield's offensive game and his 24.9 points per contest has been, he's just as effective on the defensive end of the floor. He's a long 6'4" and as evidenced by his defensive display against Niang last year in Norman, he's capable of guarding multiple positions.
Stopping Hield will be difficult enough, but it will be equally challenging keeping Ryan Spangler from dominating the glass, especially on the offensive end. Spangler is a relentless competitor and is among the toughest and craftiest son of a bitches in the country when it comes to banging in the post. Perhaps the most hated player in the Big 12 (aside from Niang), Spangler makes a living on the offensive glass and generates a great deal of his points on easy put backs. Spangler has developed nicely on the offensive end, though, and has shown more range as a senior as he's knocked down 11-23 3-point attempts. Spangler is one of three players in the Big 12 currently averaging a double-double (Rico Gathers and Cameron Ridley being the other two).
The Sooners returned four starters from last year's team and Isaiah Cousins and Jordan Woodard round out that quartet. Cousins had a breakout year a season ago and has picked up where he left off. Averaging 13.1 points, 4.6 rebounds and 4.9 assists, Cousins is easily one of the most underrated players not only in the conference, but in the country.
As for Woodard, he's really come into his own as a junior. Often overshadowed by the other stars in the Oklahoma lineup, Woodard has blossomed into a star. He's been remarkably efficient with shooting splits of 47.5%/52.2%/89.2%, which are all career highs. Woodard is also posting career highs in scoring (13.9), rebounds (4.2), steals (1.7) and is only turning it over 1.5 times per game, which is also a career best.
Khadeem Lattin is the fifth starter and at 6'9" is a nice compliment to Spangler inside. Lattin isn't much of a scoring threat, but is active on the glass and a capable post defender.
Kruger has kept a shorter bench this year, playing only about an 8-man rotation with regularity. Dinjiyl Walker is the lone guard that comes off the bench and is capable of manning the point or playing off the ball. Walker is the lone guy on the Sooner roster with more than 10 3-point attempts that isn't connecting on at least 40% of them, but is still dangerous at 34.5%.
The Sooners will use 7-footer, Akolda Manyang, to spell Lattin and Spangler inside and 6'7" Dante Buford is the only other Sooner to appear in all 11 games.
As a team, the Sooners have virtually no weaknesses. Rated 12th in offensive efficiency and 4th in defensive efficiency, Oklahoma has played only two games thus far that didn't end with them winning by double digits. Kruger's team is shooting an unfathomable 46.2% from outside and like Iowa State, they do not allow opponents to get points from the charity stripe.
If you had to pick nits, the Sooners rarely force turnovers and don't exactly get to the line much themselves (probably because they take so many 3s), but you'd be hard pressed to find another area where this team struggles.
So Who Wins?
I'll be very curious to see how Lon Kruger defends Niang. Last year, Hield did a phenomenal job of frustrating Niang in Norman, but when the Sooners came to Ames, Cousins spent a great deal of time on Niang and was abused in the second half. My guess is that Kruger will have both guards spend time on Iowa State's best player, but Spangler will likely spend the duration of the evening checking Niang.
Defensively, Iowa State is going to have to use Matt Thomas to slow Hield as he's arguably been Iowa State's most consistent perimeter defender since Naz Mitrou-Long shut it down. Abdel Nader continues to be an x-factor of sorts for the Cyclones. He's capable of playing well defensively, but too often falls asleep off the ball and hurts Iowa State defensively with unnecessary gambles. If Thomas starts the game on Hield, it will mean that Nader will start on Cousins, which could be problematic.
The Cyclones have played a little more zone this year and while I think that might be an effective way to slow the Sooners, it could leave Iowa State susceptible to giving up offensive rebounds, which is especially troubling with a guy like Spangler. It wouldn't entirely shock me if Prohm even elected to use a box-and-one strategy to limit Hield's impact.
Offensively, Iowa State knows what it needs to do and if they try and keep pace in an outside shooting game, they're likely going to lose. Niang and Jameel McKay have to get touches in the paint and both Monte Morris and especially, Nader have to attack the basket off the dribble.
I really like what Deonte Burton could give the Cyclones in this match up. Outside of Hield, Oklahoma doesn't really have anyone physically able to match up with Burton and if Hield draws that assignment, it likely means there's a mismatch elsewhere with a guard on Nader (DON'T SETTLE FOR JUMP SHOTS) or a traditional post on Niang, which should be favorable.
Iowa State got off to a great start at Cincinnati and that absolutely has to happen again on Saturday night. Once the Sooners get rolling, it's damn near impossible to slow them down. Like Iowa State, Oklahoma can erase just about any deficit and at home, they play with superb confidence.
According to kenpom.com, his formula has Oklahoma winning 89-77 and gives the Sooners an 84% win probability, but Oklahoma is not 12 points better than Iowa State on any floor. There's no question that Iowa State is going to have to play their absolute best to win this game and I think they're every bit capable of doing that.
Now will that actually happen? Eh, I'm not so sure. Regardless, I think this game is going to be much closer than many expect and remember, Oklahoma has a mega showdown in Lawrence on Monday night in what could be a potential #1 vs. #2 game. I'll take the Sooners, but won't be shocked by an upset.
Oklahoma 82 - Iowa State 79
Tip: 6:00 PM CST
Radio: Cyclone Radio Network
Cyclones.com Game Notes: Available here
Oklahoma SB Nation Site: Crimson and Cream Machine