Steve Prohm would kick my ass in coaching. T.J. Otzelberger is one of the best recruiters in the nation. So it's hard for me to ever question any decisions they make, because it's easy to put your trust in Iowa State's program in the coaching staff.
However, if you could see my input during conversations with the rest of the WRNL staff during games, you would find one common theme the last few weeks from me: wondering where Iowa State deep threat Hallice Cooke has been.
How does he go from averaging 14.1 minutes to 3 minutes a game, including not playing two of the last seven games? Has Jordan Ashton just simply been better? Has Hallice not improved? Or is Cooke still in the dog house after his one game suspension a month ago that gave Ashton his first Big 12 playing time?
It's hard to see any argument that Ashton is necessarily better than Cooke. After all, looking at Cooke's freshman stats, if he would've qualified, he would've finished 7th in the nation in 3-point percentage. Against Oklahoma State, Ashton played 21 minutes, and the only stat he recorded was a single rebound. No points, no assists, no defensive stats. In just eight minutes of action, Cooke made the only shot he took (a 3-pointer) and nabbed two boards.
Give credit to Ashton. He earned his way into the rotation, and deserves to be playing with this group of Cyclones. Compared to the rest of the team, Ashton has above average defense. But that can only go so far.
Offensively, Ashton doesn't drive, and the only passes he ever seems to make are handoffs while Morris and Niang run their motion set. The only use Ashton appears to have is the ability to hit an open shot. Cooke can drive, he can pass, and everyone knows he can shoot. Despite playing over 80 minutes less than Ashton since his suspension, the two have the same amount of assists and Ashton has just five more points.
Now, Iowa State needs Ashton and his defense. But, do we need his playing time to be four times the amount of Cooke's?
It's also hard to see any argument that Cooke hasn't improved. After both the Kansas and Oklahoma games, Cooke was seen shooting in Hilton after most players had gone home. It's clearly worked, as he ended his 1-13 slump before his suspension and has gone 3-3 from deep since.
He's also said all the right things to the media, and has posted all the right things on his social media accounts. He appears to be a great teammate and Cyclone. So what is it that's keeping him from getting playing time?
Cooke's limited playing time has been a concern of mine since Texas A&M when the offense was stalling. Instead of giving Cooke some time out there, the coaching staff elected to keep grinding with their "regular" six players, and the offense was never able to get in a groove. In his five minutes that game, Cooke took, and made, just one 3-pointer.
The concern grew during the West Virginia game. Cooke has turned the ball over twice TOTAL in all Big 12 play so far. When you're turning the ball over nearly 20 times in a single game, why would you not get someone on offense who has proven he can handle the rock? Instead, the staff decided to give Cooke two minutes of playing time in a matchup that appeared perfect to let him loose. The team had already given up 17 offensive rebounds, so do you think Cooke would've made it much worse?
Of course, the concern continued to grow during the Oklahoma State game. Despite earning the victory, the Cyclones won ugly. To put it nicely, the offense sucked for a good chunk of the game. They scored just 64 points, and had just 3 points in the first 10 minutes of the game. Why not give Cooke an opportunity to become Tyrus McGee 2.0 and try to give the team something to be excited about?
But the frustrations finally boiled over last night. After giving up a 7-0 run that allowed Texas Tech to tie the game up, Prohm decided to give Cooke a chance with four minutes left in the first half. On one of his first touches, he made a sweet move and found Georges Niang wide open under the hoop for the easy two to end the run. A few minutes later, down one, Cooke made a deep three with 34 seconds left to give Iowa State a two point lead. That put a little bit of life into ISU after falling apart to end the half.
The next time Cooke saw the court? Overtime. With the sole purpose to foul and come out of the game.
Why is this? What does Cooke need to do to finally get a chance on the court? How much better would ISU's offense run if Cooke and Matt Thomas were on the floor together, forcing the opposing team to have two lockdown perimeter defenders? Or even Cooke and Monte Morris as two playmakers to take a little pressure off Morris?
Prohm has been adamant all season that Iowa State would feature a 7-man rotation. But wasn't he planning an 8-man rotation all offseason with a healthy Naz? And honestly, how much harder is it now to make this an 8-man rotation?
It's possible Cooke is still in the doghouse, but there comes a time when you need to give that guy a chance to prove himself on the court. That time would be, say, when a walk-on (6 months ago) is playing 28 minutes in a game because three guys in the "original" 7-man rotation are watching the game on the bench.
I support Prohm in suspending Cooke against Kansas State. Cooke knows what he did wrong and has apologized for it.
I support Prohm suspending Jameel McKay two games for basically making this program look like a mess.
But if Cooke is no longer suspended, what has he done to lose so much playing time? It's not a case of Ashton outshining him, as Cooke has already matched Ashton's offensive output, despite Ashton getting nearly five times the amount of playing time as Cooke since the suspension.
Does Iowa State win with Cooke getting some respectable playing time last night? Maybe. Maybe not. But odds are he would've given the offense some life in the middle of a 11-2 run that allowed Texas Tech to storm back and get the game into overtime.
The solution: when the offense slows down, give Cooke a chance to wake them up. When the defense isn't getting the job done, give Ashton some time to help get some stops.
If the suspensions and limited playing time pay off in the end, and this Iowa State team that was once expected to contend for the Big 12 title (and is now in a race to simply finish in the top half) makes it past the Sweet 16, it will all be worth it for Prohm. After all, it's much better to hit your rough patch in January and February than it is in March. But for now, it appears there are still times when this team is struggling to find its identity. Fortunately, Prohm and Co. have a month to figure it out and get this team rolling before heading into March Madness.