Abdel Nader

Monte Morris
Associated Press

Defensive progress will determine No. 4 Iowa State’s ceiling

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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.

Offensive discipline will be key for No. 13 Iowa State next week – and beyond

Iowa State wins another Big 12 tourney crown (Getty Images)
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source: Getty Images
Iowa State wins another Big 12 tourney crown (Getty Images)

Saturday night No. 13 Iowa State won its second consecutive Big 12 tournament title, beating No. 9 Kansas 70-66, but for the second time in three games the Cyclones needed a second-half surge to earn the victory.

Thursday night, Iowa State turned in one of its poorer halves of the season in their quarterfinal matchup against Texas. The Cyclones struggled with ball and player movement on the offensive end of the floor for much of the first half, with a late run making the halftime deficit a more manageable nine points.

Of course the Cyclones managed to come back, winning by two on a Monté Morris jumper in the final seconds, but Fred Hoiberg’s team was “playing with fire” in falling behind by as much as they did. Iowa State had the same problem in the first half against the Jayhawks, as they were far too stagnant offensively and the lack of ball and player movement had a significant impact on their productivity.

The Cyclones shot 10-for-29 from the field (1-for-11 3PT), and they trailed by 14 despite scoring 16 points in the paint. That turned around in the second half, as Iowa State shot 16-for-31 from the field and scored 31 points in the paint. Given the number of shooters they have on the floor, there are times when Iowa State falls in love with the perimeter shot and essentially bails out the defense.

That didn’t occur in the second half Saturday, and the result was Iowa State being able to take advantage of a Kansas front court that is without Cliff Alexander and despite his playing Perry Ellis doesn’t look to be 100 percent either. Morris (11 points, six assists) and Niang (19 points, five rebounds) combined to score 20 points in the second half, and players such as Jameel McKay (11 points, eight points), Abdel Nader (13 points) and Bryce Dejean-Jones (seven points) stepped forward as well.

Add in the fact that they were able to limit the Jayhawks to 26.3 percent shooting, and the reasons for Iowa State’s comeback aren’t difficult to pinpoint.

There’s no denying that Iowa State can be a team capable of making a run to the Final Four, and that appeared to be the case last season before Niang broke his foot in their NCAA tournament opener. But their “ceiling” will be determined by how consistent this group is in its approach. When Iowa State is disciplined offensively and uses proper spacing to attack defenses, they are incredibly tough to stop. And when that doesn’t occur, Iowa State essentially defends itself with the opposition needing to do little more than remain in front of them.

Iowa State’s offensive approach in the second half of Saturday’s game resulted in their winning another Big 12 tournament title. And they’ll need to stick to the principles that make them so difficult to slow down for longer stretches if they’re to play deep into the NCAA tournament. They’re certainly capable; the only question is whether or not they choose to do so.

No. 21 West Virginia struggles offensively in 20-point loss at No. 14 Iowa State

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In a matchup of two of the three teams that entered Saturday tied for second place in the Big 12, No. 14 Iowa State’s ability to put points on the board was the difference in their 79-59 win over No. 21 West Virginia. While the game was a bit closer than the final margin would lead one to believe, the Cyclones took control of the game with a 14-2 run to start the second half.

Fred Hoiberg’s Cyclones, one of the best offensive teams in the country, shot 56.5% from the field and outscored the Mountaineers 21-5 from the foul line. While Iowa State committed 16 turnovers, two fewer than the 18 they committed in the first meeting between the two teams (a 74-72 Cyclone win), the Cyclones finished Saturday’s game with fewer turnovers than West Virginia (19). Unlike the first meeting, in which West Virginia outscored Iowa State by three from the foul line, the Mountaineers were unable to cover up for their lackluster shooting by scoring in other areas.

Monte Morris led five Cyclones in double figures with 19 points, and Abdel Nader scored 16 points off the bench for Iowa State, which is now tied for second with Oklahoma. Juwan Staten led the Mountaineers with 16, but no other player managed to score more than nine and as a team they shot 37.9% from the field and 5-for-10 from the foul line.

Bob Huggins’ team plays incredibly hard, and the pressure defense has been a major factor in their resurgence after failing to play at the level most expected of them for most of their first two seasons in the Big 12. But they lack consistent shooters, and that’s something that gets West Virginia in trouble when they’re unable to rack up points from turnovers, second-chance opportunities and the foul line against superior offensive teams.

That was the case Saturday afternoon in Ames, and it makes Monday night’s game against No. 8 Kansas even more important.

The good news for West Virginia is that their schedule still has multiple opportunities to add to their NCAA tournament resume, with the Big 12 being considered by many as the toughest conference in the country from top to bottom. However they won’t be able to take advantage of those opportunities if they can’t get going offensively, which has been an issue in this current stretch of three losses in their last four games.

West Virginia shot 38 percent or worse in all three defeats, and winning is incredibly tough to do when shooting that poorly from the field. While there’s no issue with using your defense to spark the offense, West Virginia has to get better when they’re unable to rely on that plan.