After starting in every Oregon State game since early January, Langston Morris-Walker had cemented his status as one of the Pac-12’s most improved players. The wing barely left the bench as a freshman, and it appeared this trend would continue through the Beavers’ non-conference slate, but the defensive boost Morris-Walker added to the lineup earned him playing time. However, Morris-Walker missed this past Saturday’s game while suspended for breaking an unspecified university rule — it was later clarified that the sophomore was arrested and charged with driving under the influence — but coach Craig Robinson will require a full roster if the tenth-seeded OSU is to shock the PAC-12 (as some, like John Gasaway, have highlighted as a possibility) and confirmed Morris-Walker will play in the conference tournament.
What is interesting about this season’s squad is the Beavers have finally discovered how to score the ball in Pac-12 play — their 1.06 offensive rating is tied for most efficient under Robinson — but the team has struggled mightily on the defensive side of the ball. The Beavers don’t force turnovers, and since they also don’t keep opponents off the defensive glass particularly well, many of the team’s defensive possessions result in a made bucket. Morris-Walker provided some semblance of defensive fortitude — the soph has shown skill as a harassing on-ball defender — so with him back in the lineup, it will be interesting whether his spark will provide a defensive stabilization. This Beavers’ squad is offensive imposing (the team converts threes at a rapid rate), so if OSU can manage to hold teams long enough, the team might just be the Pac-12’s ultimate sleeper.
Not only is Wyoming senior guard Josh Adams the lone returning starter from a team that won the Mountain West tournament last season, but he’s also one of college basketball’s best dunkers. And if anyone may have forgotten about his jumping ability, Adams put it on display Saturday during the Cowboys’ win over Montana State.
After splitting two Montana State players at the top of the key Adams attacked the basket, dunking with two hands over a late-arriving help-side defender. If you’re going to rotate over, have to do it quicker than that.
Video credit: Wyoming Athletics
Even with the coaching change from Fred Hoiberg to Steve Prohm, No. 4 Iowa State remains one of the nation’s best offensive teams. Given their skills on that end of the floor many teams find it tough to go score for score with the Cyclones, and that’s what happened to Illinois in Iowa State’s 84-73 win in the Emerald Coast Classic title game.
Georges Niang scored 23 points and grabbed eight rebounds, with Monté Morris adding 20, nine rebounds and six assists and Abdel Nader 18 points as the Cyclones moved to 5-0 on the season. The three-pointers weren’t falling in the second half, as Iowa State shot 0-f0r-12, but they shot 19-for-24 inside of the arc to pull away from a team that lost big man Mike Thorne Jr. late in the first half to a left knee injury.
Illinois’ loss of size in the paint opened things up offensively for Iowa State, and the Cyclones took advantage. But where this group grabbed control of the game was on the defensive end of the floor, and that will be the key for a team with Big 12 and national title aspirations.
Nader took on the responsibility of defending Illinois’ Malcolm Hill (20 points) in the second half and did a solid job of keeping the junior wing in check, with that serving as the spark to a 12-2 run that put the game away. There’s no denying that the Cyclones can put points on the board; most of the talent from last season is back and the productivity on that end of the floor hasn’t changed as a result. Niang’s one of the nation’s best forwards, and both Morris (who now ranks among the country’s best point guards) and Nader have taken significant strides in their respective games.
Iowa State will add Deonte Burton in December, giving them another option to call upon. Front court depth is a bit of a concern, as Iowa State can ill afford to lose a Niang or Jameel McKay, but there’s enough on the roster to compensate for that and force mismatches in other areas.
But the biggest question for this group is how effective they can become at stringing together stops. Illinois certainly had its moments in both halves Saturday night, but Iowa State also showed during the game’s decisive stretch that they can step up defensively. The key now is to do so consistently, and if that occurs the Cyclones can be a threat both within the Big 12 and nationally.