The Iowa State men’s basketball team is over halfway through the Big 12 schedule and are just a game off the pace in the loss column, with a massive matchup with Kansas State looming next weekend.
The Cyclones are right in the thick of things as 14-time defending champion Kansas is reeling with three other programs vying for a spot at the top.
ISU is very much one of those contenders.
“We’ve only had one loss with the top seven all in uniform,” ISU coach Steve Prohm said of his team.
The Cyclones, who host TCU at 1 p.m. Saturday, are extremely well positioned to be the team that ends the Jayhawks’ streak, but there are obstacles in their path.
Here are three reasons why ISU will prevail, and another three why they won’t.
Why they will
No. 1 They're the league's most talented team: It may seem strange to call the Cyclones the Big 12′s most talented team given the McDonald’s All-Americans that still populate the depleted Kansas roster, but I don’t think it’s particularly even that debatable.
Lindell Wigginton, Talen Horton-Tucker and Tyrese Haliburton look like locks to me for NBA combine invitations assuming all three declare for draft this spring (with or without agents) while Marial Shayok, who may be the conference’s player of the year, and Nick Weiler-Babb will likely snag Portsmouth invites and will get NBA shots and overseas guarantees. And however inconsistent Cameron Lard has been, his raw talent is undeniable.
Kansas State can’t compete with that, even with Dean Wade, Barry Brown and Kamau Stokes. Texas Tech has Jarrett Culver, a likely top-10 pick, but not a lot more. Baylor has, uh, some guys, presumably. The Jayhawks’ NBA prospects aren’t the slam dunk they looked, with five-star recruits Quintin Grimes and Devon Dotson underwhelming while Dedric Lawson is probably headed toward a second-round ceiling.
No. 2 The defense is legit: As good as ISU’s offenses have been over the years, it’s been the defense that’s held them back from being all-around elite. This year’s team is bucking that trend.
Opponents are shooting just 32.1 percent from 3-point range and 47 percent inside the arc while turning it over once every five possessions.
If I was Prohm, I’d worry about how many 3-point attempts my team allows, but that hasn’t really hurt ISU in a major way (yet).
The Cyclones’ defense is very hard to handle for offenses because their four-wing lineup allows them to switch everything, play passing lanes and just be more versatile and more annoying than your average defense.
No. 3 The schedule is largely favorable: The Cyclones have to go to Kansas State and Bramlage Coliseum still, but otherwise their other three remaining road trips are TCU, Texas and West Virginia. Not exactly a murderer’s row. At worst, those are all coinflip games, at best the Cyclones will be favored.
Who you play is huge, but where you play them is equally important. That sets up well for the Cyclones over the next month.
Why they won’t
No. 1: That loss to K-State: At the time, ISU’s loss to the Wildcats felt like it was a stumble, but nothing that would look exceedingly poor on an NCAA tournament resume. Sure, K-State had struggled, but it had just added Wade and it was still the same team that made the Elite 8. No harm, no foul.
Well, that might not be the case now, though not for the reasons that looked apparent at the time.
With its win at Hilton Coliseum and a home win against Kansas, the Wildcats are alone in first place with the Cyclones scheduled to visit Manhattan next weekend.
There’s going to be plenty of twists and turns between now and the end of the regular season, but Kansas State has a great chance to sweep the season series and own a critical tiebreaker with the Cyclones while perhaps keeping ISU a game back as well.
No. 2 The rebounding is bad: As good as the defense has been, the rebounding has been pretty bad. The worst in the Big 12, actually.
During conference play, the Cyclones rank last in offensive rebounding, which isn’t that big of deal as they largely don’t crash the glass in order to stifle transition opportunities.
The bigger problem is they rank dead-last in defensive rebounding, which could really come back to haunt them. Playing small has its downsides, and this is one the Cyclones are experiencing is a major way right now.
No. 3 The depth of competition: The Cyclones don’t have to just best Kansas to topple the Jayhawks’ 14-year streak, but they’ve got to be better than Kansas State, Baylor and Texas Tech, too. The more variables you introduce into a situation, the more difficult things can get.
Even the teams I chalked up as cupcakes above — TCU, Texas and West Virginia — can jump up and bite you, no problem. Winning a conference crown means being really good almost every single night.
The Cyclones can probably afford one misstep, but maybe not. The margin for error when you’re aiming this high is minuscule.