Distributor to dominator: Monte’ Morris’ challenge to change as a senior

AP Photo/Mark Wallheiser
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LOS ANGELES — For three seasons, Iowa State point guard Monte’ Morris has developed a reputation for being arguably the best pure point guard in college basketball.

For three seasons, Morris has been a model of efficiency, the epitome of what every coach in the country looks for in a floor general. He’s never finished outside the top eight in assist-to-turnover ratio, and UCSB’s Zalmico Harmon is the only player other than Morris to finish in the top 100 nationally in assists-per-game while sporting an assist-to-turnover ratio better than 4-to-1.

Morris has done it twice — each of the last two seasons — while playing in the Big 12 at an all-league level. He’s never averaged less than 28 minutes per game in a season, playing 39.9 minutes a night in the Big 12 as a junior, yet he’s totaled just 123 turnovers since arriving in Ames. For comparison’s sake, Providence point guard Kris Dunn averaged 127 turnovers a year his last two seasons in college.

“There’s a time and place where you have to make other people better, hit the right guy, make the right decision,” said ISU’s second-year head coach Steve Prohm, “and he’s really, really good in his decision making.”

Put another way, Morris has been the nation’s best facilitator for the last three years, turning himself from a three-star recruit into a potential NBA Draft pick because of his ability to protect the ball and how well he puts his talented teammates in positions where they can be most effective.

Morris is also terrific at picking his spots, at knowing when he needs to take over a game. Cyclone fans will remember how good he was down the stretch in the comeback against Iowa, or the win over Oklahoma at home, or the game-winner against Texas during the 2015 Big 12 tournament, or that entire Big 12 tournament title run.

But that was not the norm. Morris averaged 13.8 points and 6.9 assists as a junior despite posting a career-high usage rate — a stat used to determine how often a possession ends with that player, either via a shot or a turnover — of 19.8, which is more typical of a role player, someone like a spot-up shooter. Georges Niang, Buddy Hield and Denzel Valentine all had usage rate above 28.

That’s who Morris has been throughout his successful college career.

That’s the identity that he’s crafted for himself.

So what will happen when, as a senior, he’s asked to play an entirely different role?


Steve Prohm walked into a dream scenario at Iowa State last season.

Coaching at the high major level for the first time, the former Murray State head man walked into a locker room of a preseason top ten team that was loaded with veterans and led by a senior All-American in Georges Niang. It was a team that, to a point, could operate on auto-pilot.

The Cyclones didn’t have a banner season, as they struggled with front court depth and consistency en route to a fifth-place finish in the Big 12, but they did make it back to the Sweet 16 while beating Iowa, Oklahoma and Kansas at home.

All in all, Prohm’s initial foray into the Big 12 went pretty well.

This year, however, he won’t be able to simply ride the coattails of what Fred Hoiberg had built in Ames. Gone is Niang. Gone is center Jameel McKay. Gone is Abdel Nader, a second round pick of the Boston Celtics. And gone are the reinforcements that Prohm had planned to bring in up front. Emmanuel Malou opted to turn professional while Cameron Lard has yet to arrive on campus. Those were ISU’s two best incoming front pieces.

What that means is that Prohm is left with a roster where his best player over 6-foot-6 is either a sophomore that only played in 13 games last season or a grad transfer that averaged 8.1 points and 5.0 boards in Conference USA.

So when Morris announced that he would be returning to Iowa State, a decision that was, according to Morris, influenced by a shoulder injury he suffered in March, Cyclones fans were able to breathe a sigh of relief.

They weren’t entering rebuilding mode quite yet.

“I know what I got myself into coming back,” Morris said.

Steve Prohm and Monte Morris (AP Photo/Mark Wallheiser)
Steve Prohm and Monte Morris (AP Photo/Mark Wallheiser)

He also knew that he would be returning to a team that was built in a similar manner to the teams that Prohm had the most success with in his previous coaching stop. Prior to getting the Iowa State job last May, Prohm had spent four years coaching Murray State. In two of those seasons, the Racers were arguably the best mid-major team in the country. Back in 2011-12, Murray State won their first 23 games of the season, earned a No. 6 seed in the NCAA tournament and reached the Round of 32 in the NCAA tournament thanks to the play of All-American guard Isaiah Canaan.

But that Racer team was built around a stalwart defense. Iowa State finished 102nd in KenPom’s adjusted defensive efficiency metric last season and lost their best defender in McKay.

The team that Prohm coached in his final year in Kentucky, however, is promising. With future lottery pick Cameron Payne surrounded by a roster full of scrappy over-achievers, the Racers won 25 straight games at one point and missed out on the NCAA tournament thanks to an ugly schedule and an OVC tournament-winning buzzer-beater from Belmont’s Taylor Barnette. Their statistical profile — play fast, score quickly, struggle defensively — is eerily similar to what should be expected of the Cyclones this season, but perhaps the better note to make here is that the Racers weren’t expected to be quite that good before the season.

Prohm found a way to play that suited the players on his roster, and it just so happens that style of play will be perfect for the group he currently employs.

At least on paper.

You see, Payne embraced ball-dominance. His usage rate as a sophomore, when he averaged 20.2 points and 6.0 assists, was 31.5. As a freshman, it was 29.9.

In other word, on the point guard spectrum, he’s the polar opposite of what Morris has been the last three years.

Prohm knows he needs to change Monte’s mindset. He already started in on it last year.

“I like my point guards to be able to score,” Prohm said. “I’ve had a lot of really good point guards and they’ve all scored at a really high clip. Last year, I’d even tell Monte’, ‘Go go go, push push push, shoot a transition three.’ I want him in attack mode. I don’t want him thinking [set the offense].”

Morris knows that, and he says he’s ready for it.

“I’m definitely going to have to sometimes just put my head down and make a play. That’s just what it’s going to be,” he said. “This group we have, they look at me when things aren’t going right, so I know it’s going to be a lot of pressure on me. I just have to be ready to fill that role.”

Part of the reason that Prohm is confident he’ll be able to change the way Morris plays is that he’s already seen him do it. It was on a smaller scale, sure, but anyone that has watched the Cyclones over the years knows that Morris is capable of taking a game over. He was Iowa State’s go-to guy in crunch-time.

“There’s times where, last year, offensively, late [in games], he made really big offensive plays for us,” Prohm said. “He’s just going to have to do that a little more often this year.”

The most important part, Prohm says, was for Morris to add some strength and muscle to his frame, something that Morris did over the summer. He already plays a ridiculous amount — he averaged 39.9 minutes in Big 12 play last season — but his minutes will be “tougher” this season. He’ll be the focal point of every opponent’s scouting report. He’ll be face-guarded. He’ll be bumped. He’ll be grabbed. He’ll get beat up the way Golden State opponents figured out they needed to beat up Steph Curry. And he’ll have to do all that while dealing with the wear and tear that comes with trying to score 20-25 points every night.

That was a problem that Payne dealt with as well, which is why Prohm built sets into Murray State’s offense that pushed him off the ball. According to Synergy, nearly 10 percent of Payne’s offense as a sophomore came in off-ball screening actions. Morris ran off a screen three times as a junior.

Becoming a more consistent three-point shooter is critical as well. Morris has been a good shooter throughout his college career, but he’s always struggled with his shot in non-conference play — his splits as a junior were 28.3% in non-conference and 43.4% in league play — and his perimeter shot has been more of a way to keep defenses honest than it has been one of the better weapons in his arsenal; at heart, he’s a penetrator that does his best work when he can get into the paint, and he’s one of the best in the country when it comes to finishing floaters and runners.

All of that, however, is secondary.

The key for Morris is going to be how well he transitions from being a facilitator to being the centerpiece of team’s offense, which is not an easy. The best true point guards, the guys like Chris Paul and Isaiah Thomas, are wired one way. They try to get others involved. They try to lead, to set up, to get everyone else involved. They take over only when needed, and their teams are usually better for it.

Morris, who is more Chris Paul than Kyrie Irving, needs to be rewired.

“We just going to play this one out,” Morris said with a smile. “I did it for three years, but assist-to-turnover, we’ll just throw that one out the window. I’ll just try to be aggressive and do what I do.”

Top-ranked Houston grinds out 53-48 win over Saint Mary’s

Chris Jones-USA TODAY Sports
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FORT WORTH, Texas – J’Wan Roberts scored 15 points, Marcus Sasser added 13 and top-ranked Houston held on to beat Saint Mary’s 53-48 on Saturday night.

The Cougars (8-0) won twice in their first week as the No. 1 team since the final poll of the 1982-83 regular season, when Clyde Drexler and Hakeem Olajuwon led high-flying Phi Slama Jama.

Logan Johnson scored 17 points and Aidan Mahaney had 14 for the Gaels (6-3), who lost their third in a row following a 6-0 start.

Houston was the favorite to win it all in the second of three consecutive trips to the Final Four nearly 40 years ago, but lost to Jim Valvano and North Carolina State in one of the iconic championship games.

Coach Kelvin Sampson’s first top-ranked team is coming off trips to the Final Four and Elite Eight the past two seasons.

For the third straight year, the postseason path will start at Dickie’s Arena, where Sampson likes to bring his team during the regular season as prep for the American Athletic Conference tourney.

This victory in the Battleground 2k22 series improved the Cougars to 9-0 in the arena near downtown Fort Worth, where they have won AAC tournament titles each of the past two years.

Saint Mary’s whittled a 12-point deficit to a single possession when Mahaney hit a 3, and he made it a three-point game again at 46-43 with another from long range.

Roberts answered by backing down for a short jump hook before Sasser converted a three-point play to put the Cougars up 51-43.

Houston broke a 17-all tie with a 14-3 run to finish the first half, with Saint Mary’s going 1 of 11 from the field in that stretch against the vaunted Cougars defense. Both teams shot 37%.

BIG PICTURE

Saint Mary’s: Facing the No. 1 team isn’t foreign to the Gaels, who play in the West Coast Conference with Gonzaga. St. Mary’s is 2-7 against the Zags when they have the top ranking, with one of the victories coming last season.

Houston: The Cougars had no trouble in their debut with the No. 1 ranking, blowing out Norfolk State 100-52 at home Tuesday. A disciplined and tournament-tested opponent for the second game was just the threat Sampson’s club figured it could be.

UP NEXT

Saint Mary’s: Missouri State at home Wednesday.

Houston: North Florida at home Tuesday.

Clowney, No. 11 Alabama recover to beat South Dakota St

Gary Cosby Jr.-USA TODAY Sports
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TUSCALOOSA, Ala. – Freshman Noah Clowney’s breakout game – 22 points, nine rebounds, four assists and a steal – helped No. 11 Alabama recover from blowing a 20-point lead and beat South Dakota State 78-65 on Saturday night.

Clowney shot 8 of 17, including 5 of 12 on 3s, in his highest-scoring game of the season.

“We’ve encouraged him to shoot it, I’m glad he did,” Alabama coach Nate Oats said. “His senior year of high school, he started out pretty poorly from 3 then shot it 40% after that, so I kind of referenced that.”

Alabama (7-1) led 37-17 with 6 1/2 minutes left in the first half. South Dakota State (3-6) rallied to go ahead 51-50 on Alex Arians’ 3-pointer with 11 1/2 minutes remaining.

Nimari Burnett’s foul shot a minute later put the Crimson Tide ahead for good at 54-53. Alabama used a 9-0 run to pull away.

Mark Sears scored 19 points and Brandon Miller had 16 points and nine rebounds for the Crimson Tide

Alabama made 14 of its first 26 shots to build a big lead before it slipped away.

“I’m not going to call them mature, we still have some room to grow,” Oats said. “Our guys have to understand, no matter who we’re playing, even if their record isn’t great, they’re Division I basketball players, they’re good teams. Last year, we had issues with this going down the road.”

Charlie Easley and Arians each scored 17 points for the Jackrabbits. Zeke Mayo added 12 points and Matt Dentlinger contributed nine rebounds.

BIG PICTURE

Sears continues to be a force at home for Alabama. In Alabama’s last three home games – wins over Liberty, Jacksonville State and South Dakota State – he has scored 22, 18 and 19 points, making at least three 3-pointers in all three games. Alabama’s next home game comes against a Memphis team that already has two wins over SEC competition.

SECOND HALF SPRING

South Dakota State coach Eric Henderson noticed that in Alabama’s first two home games, Longwood and Liberty both trailed by fewer than 10 points at halftime before losing by 21 and 36 points, respectively. He viewed the first five minutes of the second half as critical in both instances, seeing an Alabama team using the home environment to its advantage.

Henderson stressed to his team that it had to win those five minutes to have a chance. Down 42-35 at the break, it did, and ultimately took the lead.

“They really increase the pressure, they try to play a little faster, they get downhill and they really spray it,” Henderson said. “I thought we were getting some 50-50 balls, I thought we were playing with some confidence. There’s been a lot of schools to come in here and have a good first half and it ends up being a 30- or 40-point game.”

UP NEXT

South Dakota State stays on the road to face Montana on Tuesday.

Alabama takes a weeklong break before its second game against the current No. 1 team in the nation, this time a road game against Houston on Saturday. The Crimson Tide beat former No. 1 North Carolina in its first shot at the top-ranked team, winning 103-101 in four overtimes on Nov. 27.

Rutgers beats No. 10 Indiana for sixth straight time, 63-48

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PISCATAWAY, N.J. – With the clock winding down in the final minutes, Rutgers fans didn’t hesitate in letting No. 10 Indiana how they felt about the Hoosiers’ rating.

Chants of “Who’s Your Daddy” and “Overrated” were shouted with glee at the Indiana bench after the team was knocked from the unbeaten ranks.

Make no mistake, Rutgers (6-2, 1-0 Big Ten) owns Indiana (7-1, 0-1) on the basketball floor these days.

Freshman guard Derek Simpson scored 10 straight points in a game-deciding run and Rutgers beat Indiana for the sixth time in a row and ninth time in 10 meetings, 63-48 on Saturday.

“As far as Indiana goes, I feel we just know the focus of this team,” said Rutgers senior Caleb McConnell, who had 16 points and 10 rebounds. “It gives us an advantage because we had beaten them five times in a row. We went in trying to execute our game plan and we did it again.”

Simpson scored all 14 of his points in the second half as Rutgers made coach Mike Woodson’s first visit to “The Banks” unpleasant.

“We got to make shots from the perimeter,” said Woodson, whose team shot 30.4% from the field, including 6 of 21 from long range. “But we just got out-toughed tonight. I thought, I mean, from the beginning to the end, I mean, we couldn’t rebound the basketball with him. I thought that was the difference in the ballgame and that was the cushion that they needed.”

Miller Kopp scored a season-high 21 points for Indiana . Star forward Trayce Jackson-Davis, who faced a packed in defense, was held to 13 points and 10 rebounds before fouling out late.

Jackson-Davis said Indiana just didn’t play well.

“I don’t necessarily say that it’s a bad matchup for us because I think defensively we’re still good,” he said. “But at the same time, our offense just wasn’t clicking tonight.”

The win was coach Steve Pikiell’s 14th over a ranked team since taking over a struggling Rutgers’ program in 2016-17. As usual, defense was at the center of its win.

The Hoosiers’ point total was a season low. They were averaging 87.1 points and were coming off a win over North Carolina.

Indiana played poorly in the first half in falling behind 31-24. The Hoosiers opened the final 20 minutes with a 13-4 spurt, taking two-point leads on baskets by Xavier Johnson and Kopp.

McConnell hit a 3-pointer to put Rutgers ahead for good and then Simpson took over, hitting a layup, a jumper, a 3-pointer and a big scoop shot for a 47-37 lead. His final point in the run came when Johnson hit him in the face in the offensive zone and a flagrant foul was eventually called. He made 1 of 2 free throws.

“I still have have much more to do and I am going to keep working and we’re going to keep working as a team,” Simpson said. “It was a fun game, and it really got loud. My ears are still ringing right now.”

MULCAHY RETURNS

Rutgers senior starting guard Paul Mulcahy returned to the lineup after missing four games with a shoulder injury. He came off the bench early in the first half and played almost 24 minutes, scoring six points and handing out four assists.

MISSING

Indiana starting guard Jalen Hood-Schifino did not play because of a back problem. He was averaging 8.7 points. Starting forward Race Thompson, who was averaging 7.3 points, was scoreless on 0 for 4 shooting.

BIG PICTURE

Indiana: This was poor performance by the Hoosiers. They are bound to take a tumble.

Rutgers: This was a big win for Rutgers, which was coming off a road loss at Miami. They are 6-0 at home.

UP NEXT

Indiana: Conference home opener against Nebraska on Wednesday.

Rutgers: At No. 25 Ohio State on Thursday.

Flagler, No. 6 Baylor rally late, top No. 14 Gonzaga 64-63

Baylor vs. Gonzaga
USA Today
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SIOUX FALLS, S.D. — In a rematch of the 2021 national championship game, Adam Flagler hit a pair of 3s as No. 6 Baylor scored the final eight points to rally past No. 14 Gonzaga 64-63 Friday night.

Gonzaga’s Rasir Bolton missed a wild, driving layup try at the buzzer.

Two seasons ago, Baylor beat the then-undefeated Zags 86-70 to win its first title. This time, the Bears didn’t take the lead for good until Jalen Bridges made two free throws with 16 seconds left.

“Adam is a great leader, but no one knew he wasn’t feeling well today,” Baylor head coach Scott Drew said. “To be honest, some players wouldn’t have played. He played through the pain and left it all out on the court. As a coach, I appreciate that.”

The Bears (6-2) trailed 63-56 before Flagler hit a 3-pointer with 1:33 left. Flagler’s 3 with just over a minute to play cut Baylor’s deficit to 63-62.

After a Gonzaga shot clock violation, Flagler’s 3-point attempt for the lead was off the mark, but Bridges was fouled by Drew Timme on the rebound attempt. Bridges hit two foul shots to put Baylor ahead.

The Zags (5-3) had a final chance when Bolton caught an inbounds pass near his own foul line with 4.6 seconds remaining. He drove the lane, but his off-balance shot went high off the glass and missed as the buzzer sounded.

“We took two balls down hill and tried to make plays at the rim. At that point in the game, those are tough,” Gonzaga head coach Mark Few said. “It’s very disappointing. They made plays, man.”

Freshman Keyonte George had 18 points and seven rebounds for Baylor. Flagler had 11 points and Langston Love added 10.

“I trust my work. I was able to knock them down,” George said. “My teammates believe in me each and every day. They give me that confidence in a big game to make big shots like that.”

Malchi Smith scored 16 points for Gonzaga. Anton Watson added a double-double with 13 points and 13 rebounds. Timme had nine points.

Baylor led by as many as 12 in the first half before Gonzaga closed to five at the break.

Watson’s basket put Gonzaga ahead 41-40. From there, the teams swapped leads over the next 13 minutes as the second half featured two ties and 14 lead changes.

A thunderous dunk from Smith gave Gonzaga its seven-point lead with under two minutes to go.

BIG PICTURE

Baylor: The win was a big rebound for Baylor after its 26-point loss to Marquette earlier in the week. The loss was the Bears’ most lopsided since they fell to Kansas 82-56 in 2007

Gonzaga: After opening the season ranked No. 2 in the AP preseason poll, the Zags have now lost two of three.

STAR WATCH

Timme began the night leading the Bulldogs in scoring at 20 points per game. He was hampered by foul trouble against Baylor and got his first field goal with six minutes remaining. He fouled out with 16 seconds to play.

REMATCH PLAYERS

Four players on the floor Friday night had significant minutes in the championship game two years ago including Flagler, Timme and Watson, along with Baylor’s Flo Thamba.

UP NEXT

Baylor: The Bears return home to host Tarleton on Tuesday before playing Washington State on Sunday in Dallas for the Pac 12 Coast-to-Coast Challenge.

Gonzaga: The Bulldogs return to Spokane for three straight beginning Monday when they face Kent State for the first time in school history.

Carr scores 19, No. 2 Texas beats No. 7 Creighton 72-67

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AUSTIN, Texas – Texas had pressured Creighton’s shooters into a miserable night, only to watch a late flurry of 3-pointers start swishing.

An 11-point Longhorns lead was down to three.

That hardly rattled Marcus Carr and the second-ranked Longhorns, who stepped up with big late shots of their own and steady free-throw shooting to secure another impressive early-season victory, 72-67 over the seventh-ranked Bluejays on Thursday night.

Carr scored 19 points and made two free throws with 10 seconds left as Texas held off Creighton’s furious late-game rally.

Creighton struggled through a wretched 3-point shooting night, but pulled within 62-59 thanks in part to five points in a row by Baylor Scheierman. Carr’s baseline jumper and an easy layup by Tyrese Hunter when Creighton lost him on an inbound pass with 46 seconds left stretched the Longhorns’ lead again.

That didn’t quite close the door on Creighton, which got two more 3-pointers from Scheierman, who had missed his first nine attempts. That forced Texas to finish it from the free-throw line behind Carr and Brock Cunningham. Cunningham’s two free throws with 4 seconds left were his only points of the game.

“There’s going to be a bunch of times one of us has to go down there and knock down a bunch of free throws,” Carr said. “We talk about it all the time.”

The matchup was part of the Big 12-Big East Battle and Texas earned its second win over a top-10 opponent in its new arena. The Longhorns (6-0) beat then-No. 2 Gonzaga on Nov. 16 and have their highest ranking since they were No. 1 during the 2009-2010 season.

“I don’t think we’ve proven anything,” Texas coach Chris Beard said. “We’re just a team that’s trying to get better.”

Hunter scored 15 points for Texas.

Ryan Kalkbrenner had 20 points and 13 rebounds for Creighton (6-2), and Ryan Nembhard scored 17 points. The Bluejays were 4 of 27 on 3-pointers.

Scheierman, a 44% shooter from beyond the arc this season, made three 3s in a row late. His off-balance shot from the right corner over a defender pulled the Bluejays within 68-65 with 11.4 seconds left.

Scheierman finished with 13 points and 11 rebounds.

“The reality is you are gonna have nights,” Creighton coach Greg McDermott said. “It just happens. We don’t ever want him to stop shooting.”

BIG PICTURE

Creighton: Kalkbrenner was all but unstoppable on a 9-of-10 shooting night for the Bluejays, who kept launching from long range instead of looking for their 7-foot-1 center.

Texas: The Longhorns couldn’t force their usual numbers of turnovers and fast-break points, but were exceptionally clean with the ball on offense. Texas had just three turnovers that Creighton turned into three points.

FORMER TEAMMATES

Texas senior forward Christian Bishop played three seasons at Creighton before transferring prior to last season. He finished with six points and four rebounds in 16 minutes.

“We understood what this game was, not just for our team but for Christian,” Carr said.

TIRED TEAM

McDermott suggested his team maybe just wore out. The Bluejays went 2-1 in the Maui Invitational last week and then played their first game of the season on an opponent’s home court.

“Three games in three days against ranked teams (in Hawaii) and then to come in here,” McDermott said. “That’s a lot to ask of my team.”

UP NEXT

Creighton hosts in-state rival Nebraska on Sunday.

Texas plays No. 16 Illinois in New York City on Dec. 6 in the Jimmy V Classic.