Let’s address the elephant in the room here, shall we? Iowa State’s loss to Oklahoma Saturday evening exacerbated what fans had been thinking for most of the non-conference schedule this year. The Cyclones scheduled a horrific pre-Big 12 lineup that only included a grand total of 3 combined Quad 1 and 2 games. Two of those games were courtesy of the tournament in Orlando (A&M: Q1, Virginia Tech: Q2) and the other was the home game blowout of maybe the worst Iowa team in recent memory.
But that’s not really the issue, is it? The issue is that Iowa State has played 9(!!) Q4 games this year, and ended with 4 straight cakewalks leading into Big 12 play, which is far and away the best conference in college basketball. Not only is Iowa State untested, this was entirely preventable by the administration and coaching staff.
Beyond the obvious scheduling must-have’s (Iowa, Big 12-Big East, The ESPN Tournament), Iowa State didn’t schedule a single P6 opponent, either at home or on the road. The Cyclones could’ve chosen to at least attempt to get a home-and-home on the schedule with a P6 team. The talent discrepancy between even a Nebraska vs. Florida A&M is outrageous, and this team stands so little to gain. Like everyone’s dad and coaches used to say, “Play against terrible competition and you’ll get better.”
I think the frustrating part of this situation is that this Iowa State team doesn’t need to go through a gauntlet to be tested. The Cyclones don’t need to schedule in the non-conference like Bill Self does at Kansas, but this team probably needed to be tested more than they were. The talent disparity in playing against Oklahoma vs. any of the cupcakes this team blew through after the Iowa game is astounding. Even more frustrating is that Milan Momcilovic took to the postgame show on the Cyclone Radio Network to lament about the speed differences between the Big 12 and who they had been playing. This is a failure on the coaching staff and administration to adequately prepare this team for the grind of conference play.
But what about the NET? Iowa State is still ranked 12th in the primary metric used by the committee to determine NCAA Tournament eligibility, even after the loss to OU. The Cyclones have capitalized on the analytically-tilted rankings system to catapult them into the top-15. NET, KenPom, and other major analytics sites have been high on this team all through December due to their massive margins of victory against these terrible teams. Any counter arguments to the before few points are just tapping the sign that says “look at our NET ranking”.
I’m here to tell you that the NCAA Tournament isn’t played in January, and Iowa State’s NET ranking as of 1/7 has no impact on what things will look like in mid-March. I’d rather this team have chances to prep for conference play and be tested early, as opposed to spanking Roast Beef Tech 9 different times and learn absolutely nothing about the team. If things get dicey and Iowa State has to sweat out Selection Sunday, the Committee will be scrutinizing the horrendous schedule from prior to conference play.
There can be a balance between setting up these Charmin-soft games and throwing in a P6 opponent a few times. Give the guys a chance to compete instead of trotting out punching bags 9 different times before January.
Iowa State’s first crack at new conference member Houston comes after the Cougars violated West Virginia in ways that are surely illegal in most of the United States. Houston pummeled the hapless Mountaineers by 34 and somehow the score doesn’t really indicate how lopsided this game really was. The Cougs led 48-22 at halftime and even went on a 16-5 run to start the second half to push the lead to 39. Former Baylor guard LJ Cryer led the way for Houston, shooting 4-7 from 3 for a team-high 20 points.
Houston has made their mark under Kelvin Sampson the last few years by playing hard-nosed defense and dominating the glass. The Cougars are the fourth-best offensive rebounding team in the country currently, and have finished 4th, 3rd, 2nd, and 2nd over the last four years. Defensively, Houston has yet to allow a team to score more than 66 points this season and is currently the number 1 defensive team in the country, according to KenPom.
Houston plays slow and methodically on offense, but still produces an efficient offense, good for 11th-best in all of college basketball. The Cougars sport a balanced attack, and can both win from behind the arc and in the paint. While LJ Cryer averages 40% from 3, his other back court running mates all also shoot above 30%, which will give an Iowa State defense that already struggles to defend a spaced floor even more issues Tuesday night.
If there is a knock on Houston it’s that they are abnormally small for a team that rebounds at such a high level. Houston’s front court of Ramon Walker and Ja’Vier Francis are only 6’4” and 6’8” and are both matchups Iowa State will certainly look to exploit and counter with Hasan Ward, Bob Jones, and Tre King.
Trying to poke holes in Houston’s analytics is like trying to find problems with Steph Curry’s jump shot or Sydney Sweeney’s outfit choices. They’re sound defensively, can score in a variety of ways, are an elite offensive rebounding team, and have proven to be a year-over-year threat to make the Final Four. There’s really only one trend that points to Houston’s downfall, and that’s that they are 6-4 over this year and last when shooting below 40% from the field. Iowa State has not held a P6 team under 40% from the field so far this year (Iowa is not P6 this season) but did do so last year 7 times against major conference opponents, including Kansas and Baylor.
Candidly, this is a poor matchup for Iowa State. Houston is a team that has no problem taking and making 3’s and wants to slow things down in the front court to turn this game into a bare knuckle brawl. Iowa State has historically had success under TJ Otzelberger playing against teams that like to play quickly and with less physicality, like Baylor. The Cyclones will need to be efficient on the defensive glass and be locked in defensively to stop Houston’s dynamic guard play. If they can keep Cryer and his running mate Jamal Shead in check, the Clones will have a chance to steal this one. Hilton Coliseum is the ultimate back pocket weapon, and Iowa State will lean heavily on the crowd to help push them to a win.
I’m not optimistic about this one, but stranger things have happened... I think Houston wins a close game but Iowa State picks up confidence heading into the rest of Big 12 play. Houston might be the best team in all of college basketball and the Cyclones need to show they can hang with teams night in and night out in the Big 12.