Oklahoma senior guard Buddy Hield and Iowa State senior forward Georges Niang, two of America’s best players, were on display in the final quarterfinal of the Big 12 tournament Thursday night. And both lived up to the praise that’s been heaped upon them this season, with Hield scoring an efficient 39 points and Niang countering with 31 after dealing with first-half foul trouble.
But in the end Oklahoma was able to do enough to hang on for the 79-76 win, doing so despite an off night from beyond the arc.
The Sooners shot just 4-for-21 from three on the night, and for a team so reliant on the three that would normally spell doom. In each of Oklahoma’s last four losses they shot no better than 35.7 percent from three (at Texas), so what would shooting below 20 percent against a team with the offensive weapons that Iowa State lead to? Not a loss, thanks to the masterful performance produced by Hield.
Hield, who shot 2-for-6 from three, made 12 of his 15 two-point attempts and shot 9-for-9 from the foul line. Matt Thomas, Iowa State’s best perimeter defender, did his best to keep up with the national Player of the Year candidate and force him to make tough shots. But that’s a task easier said than done, and Hield still managed to make the offensive plays the Sooners needed him to make. Isaiah Cousins and Ryan Spangler scored ten points apiece, and at a combined 7-for-19 from the field (Jordan Woodard scored four points on 1-for-8 shooting) they weren’t all that efficient against the Cyclones.
Subpar nights like those put more pressure on Hield to score, but as he has on many occasions this season the senior guard rose to the challenge. This isn’t a formula Oklahoma will look to rely upon as the games get even bigger, as players such as Cousins, Spangler and Woodard are better than they showed Thursday night. But in Hield they have a talent that few teams can match, and even fewer can manage to slow down.
Iowa State made its charge in the second half, but the combination of Hield and a high turnover count proved to be too much to overcome. Iowa State committed 18 turnovers, with the Sooners converting those into 17 points on the night. They won’t run into many players the caliber of Hield in the NCAA tournament, and one would think that the Cyclones won’t turn the ball over as often either. But if there’s a concern for Steve Prohm it’s the health of his point guard, as Monté Morris looked nothing like himself as he played with a right shoulder injury.
Morris had just one of those 18 turnovers, but he scored five points on 1-for-9 shooting. Iowa State needs Morris to be at his best, or close to it, if they’re to beat the nation’s best teams and wasn’t Thursday night. Losing in the quarterfinals is a disappointing result, but it gets Morris some additional rest ahead of the NCAA tournament. Niang nearly pushed Iowa State to the win, but some issues on their end and the presence of Hield resulted in the Cyclones coming up short.
Niang, Morris lead No. 14 Iowa State past No. 24 Texas
After falling at Texas Tech for the second straight season midweek, No. 14 Iowa State needed to bounce back with No. 24 Texas visiting Hilton Coliseum. The return of Jameel McKay, who was suspended for two games, certainly helped the Cyclones and the play of Georges Niang and Monte Morris was key as well. But the biggest difference on this night was the fact that Iowa State was able to limit the effectiveness of Texas point guard Isaiah Taylor.
Taylor scored just nine points on 3-for-14 shooting from the field, and with Morris and Niang scoring 24 points apiece the Cyclones won by the final score of 85-75.
Taylor had multiple opportunities to make plays around the basket thanks to his ability to beat defenders off the bounce, but he struggled to finish. Add in a 0-for-4 night from three, and Texas’ most dangerous offensive option was unable to duplicate his performance in the first meeting between the two teams. In Texas’ 94-91 overtime win over the Cyclones January 12, Taylor scored 28 points and dished out six assists with just one turnover, shooting 11-for-17 from the field.
Four Longhorns finished in double figures, with Tevin Mack and Javan Felix scoring 18 apiece, but with Morris decisively winning the point guard matchup Texas was unable to pick up the win on the road.
For Iowa State the aforementioned tandem of Morris and Niang performed as they did in the first meeting, which should come as no surprise. What helped them, especially when it came to Texas attacking the basket, was the presence of McKay. McKay finished the game with eight points, seven rebounds and four blocks in 22 minutes of action, and to have their best interior defender back on the floor certainly helped the Cyclones on this night.
With their lack of depth Iowa State’s margin for error is small, especially when it comes to foul trouble, injuries and disciplinary reasons. Even with Texas’ size advantage Iowa State outscored them in the paint 48-34, and McKay’s defensive ability factored into that. The Cyclones can put points on the board with the best of them, but at some point they’ll need to string together stops as the games get even bigger.
Iowa State managed to do that down the stretch, with Morris and Niang running the show offensively. And that’s a good formula to be able to rely upon as the season approaches its most important month.
Monté Morris finished with 21 points, nine assists and no turnovers and Georges Niang had 21 points of his own as No. 14 Iowa State picked up their third straight win on Monday night, knocking off No. 4 Kansas, 85-72.
It’s the fourth time in the last five games that Iowa State has picked off the Jayhawks.
Based on the box score, it may look like the Cyclones won this thing easily, but that certainly wasn’t the case. Kansas jumped out to a 24-14 lead in the first 10 minutes and more or less kept that margin intact through the first TV timeout of the second half. The Jayhawks were up 50-42 with 15 minutes left in the game before back-to-back threes from Matt Thomas and Morris sparked a 24-7 run that led to a game-winning 43-22 surge down the stretch.
And while Iowa State’s offense will likely get the credit, the turning point game on the defensive end of the floor.
Through the first 25 minutes on Monday, Kansas ran their offense to perfection. The ball was switching sides of the floor, the passing was crisp, the Jayhawks got the Iowa State defense moving and, as a result, they were able to attack close-outs and get open looks from the perimeter. It’s how basketball is supposed to be played.
In the second half, however, the Cyclones made the adjustment to try and keep the ball on one side of the floor. They played in passing lanes to deny ball reversals and they made an adjustment to their ball-screens coverages, and the end result was that Kansas’ offense became stagnant. The ball stuck in the hands of the point guards, the Jayhawks tried to go one-on-one on far too many possessions and hero-ball kicked in. A couple of turnovers turned into layups, the crowd got into the game and before Kansas could react, it was out of reach.
Iowa State had been lambasted for their defensive effort when they were 1-3 in Big 12 play, but they’ve really taken a step forward in the last week.
So credit Steve Prohm and Iowa State. They picked up another huge home win just a week after beating No. 1 Oklahoma in this same building, a winning streak that no only relieves the pressure that was mounting on Fred Hoiberg’s replacement but also keeps them just one game out of first place in what is bound to be a wild conference title race.
Speaking of which, I think it’s safe to say that Oklahoma is now the favorite to win the league, even if it’s not by much. The Sooners, the No. 1 team in the country, have played at Kansas, at Baylor and both games against Iowa State. They hold a one-game lead over the Jayhawks with a game left against Kansas in Norman.
Maybe I’m reading into it too much, maybe it’s just a hunch, but I have a feeling that when Oklahoma hosts Kansas on Feb. 13th, it will determine whether or not Bill Self’s streak of 11 straight regular season titles remains intact.
No. 19 Iowa State lands a critical upset over No. 1 Oklahoma
For the fifth time this season and the for the third time in the state of Iowa, the No. 1 team in the country lost.
This time it was Oklahoma, who was the latest victim of Hilton Magic, falling to No. 19 Iowa State in Ames, 82-77, on Monday night. Georges Niang led the way for the Cyclones with 22 points, but it was Monté Morris burying a jumper with 20 seconds left to break a 75-all and give the Cyclones a lead that they wouldn’t relinquish. On the ensuing possession, Oklahoma’s Buddy Hield missed a contested layup and Isaiah Cousins bricked a decent look at a three after the rebound bounced into his hands.
The Cyclones would hit the free throws they needed to ice what is a critically important win.
Iowa State entered the night having lost three of their first five games in Big 12 play, including allowing Baylor to run up in Hilton Coliseum and get a win. In a conference that is as strong as the Big 12 is this season, losing home games is the kind of thing that will not only end your chances of winning the league’s regular season title but could end up falling out of the top four.
Think about it like this: Entering Monday, there was a four-way tie for first place in the Big 12 between Kansas, Oklahoma, Baylor and West Virginia. Had the Cyclones lost this game, they would have fallen three games off that pace having already lost twice in what is supposed to be one of the best home court environments in the country.
But this was about more than just their spot in the standings.
‘Fred Hoiberg never would’ve started the Big 12 season 2-4. If Steve Prohm can’t win with these guys, how will he ever win here?’ Throw in a couple of cuss words, and it’s not hard to imagine that very conversation happening in every sports bar in Ames. It’s never easy being the guy tasked with replacing “The Guy”, so this win undoubtedly took a whole lot of pressure off of this team and their coach, at least for the time being.
“This was huge for us,” Niang said. “A lot of people doubted us and we just wanted to show everybody we were real. We did that today.”
If there is a concern here for the Cyclones, it’s that they essentially played the entire game without a bench. Deonte Burton played a few minutes and Jordan Ashton saw some time, but for the most part, Prohm rode his starters hard.
And they rewarded him.
“Everyone of them made big plays all night,” Prohm said. “Our guys are battle tested and had a lot of adversity the last week or two. I’m really proud of them.”
So yes, this was a big win for Iowa State.
And while it’s another close road loss against a top five team in the league, it’s not all negative for the Sooners. Buddy Hield did Buddy Hield things — he finished with 27 points and had a flurry of second half threes that twice erased big Iowa State leads — but the good news was that Isaiah Cousins finally woke up. Over his last six games, Cousins had been shooting 25.0 percent from the floor and 20.0 percent from three while averaging just 8.8 points. On Monday, he scored 24 points and shot 10-for-15 from the floor, only missing one of his five threes, although that one came with Oklahoma down two points and just 10 seconds left on the clock.
While the conversation of who is the best player in college basketball can be rather straightforward most years, as many have focused on Providence’s Kris Dunn and LSU’s Ben Simmons ahead of this season, determining who are the most important players in college basketball is a different matter. For some that may mean that they’re the primary scorer, while the importance of other players may best be measured in areas such as defense and leadership.
Below are ten of the nation’s most important players heading into the 2015-16 campaign.
1. Kris Dunn, Providence: Say what you want about the Friars’ chances of reaching the NCAA tournament for a third consecutive season, but there’s no denying just how important the redshirt junior point guard is to his team. Last season Dunn averaged 15.6 points, 5.5 rebounds, 7.5 assists and 2.7 steals per game, emerging as one of the nation’s best point guards. Now expected to be the best player in the country, Dunn has to lead a team that lost three of its top four scorers from a season ago. His skill level and leadership will be critical for Ed Cooley’s team.
2. Tyler Ulis, Kentucky: Sure the future professional prospects of players such as Jamal Murray and Skal Labissiere are bound to receive attention, but no player may be of greater importance to the Wildcats than their sophomore point guard. Ulis played in a reserve role on last year’s 38-1 team, and given the overall youth of this group his ability to lead will be of great importance to John Calipari’s team. While Kentucky does have some experienced players, the best of that bunch is either returning from injury (Alex Poythress) or getting used to a more prominent role (Marcus Lee).
3. Melo Trimble, Maryland: Trimble met (and some would argue, exceeded) the hype in College Park as a freshman, accounting for 16.2 points, 3.9 rebounds and 3.0 assists per game. Also one of the nation’s best at getting to the foul line, Trimble was a key factor in the Terrapins’ turnaround in 2014-15. Now with Mark Turgeon’s team being labeled as a national title contender, Trimble’s strides as a leader will be key for a group that isn’t short on talent by any stretch of the imagination. How will this group deals with those expectations will depend largely upon the play of their point guard.
4. Marcus Paige, North Carolina: Paige is currently sidelined with a broken bone on his non-shooting hand, with the expectation being that he’ll miss between three and four weeks. While that provides some of his teammates with opportunities to step forward, that doesn’t mask just how important the senior guard is to North Carolina’s national title hopes. Paige (14.1 ppg, 4.5 apg) was UNC’s best distributor and scorer a season ago, and he was also by far their best perimeter shooter. He’s the biggest key for a team expected to contend for a national title.
5. Tyrone Wallace, California: We’ve discussed Wallace’s role on here during our preseason coverage and with good reason. The left-handed senior was a Bob Cousy Award finalist last season and will once again run the show for Cuonzo Martin’s Golden Bears. But the circumstances are much different this time around, with Cal being a team expected to both contend in the Pac-12 and be a factor nationally. None of that happens if Wallace, who averaged 17.1 points, 7.1 rebounds and 4.0 assists per game as a junior, doesn’t lead.
6. Denzel Valentine, Michigan State: The Spartans lost two key contributors from last year’s Final Four team in Travis Trice and Branden Dawson, but they have enough talent to make a return trip. One of those players is Valentine, a senior whose versatility is matched by few in college basketball. Valentine can play any position on the perimeter, and after averaging 14.5 points, 6.3 rebounds and 4.3 assists per game as a junior he’s capable of taking another step forward in 2015-16.
7. Monté Morris, Iowa State: Morris took a significant step forward as a sophomore, averaging 11.9 points, 3.4 rebounds and 5.2 assists per game on a team that won its second consecutive Big 12 tournament crown. But that team was one and done in the NCAA tournament, and with a new head coach in Steve Prohm at the helm a team with national title desires will have to adjust to a different style. At the forefront is Morris, and given how point guards who have played for Prohm in recent years (Isaiah Canaan, Cameron Payne) have flourished this could be a big year for the junior. While the front court has talent and experience, how well Morris runs the show will have the greatest impact on the Cyclones.
8. Ben Simmons, LSU: Simmons arrived in Baton Rouge amidst much fanfare and with good reason, as he’s considered to be the top prospect heading towards next June’s NBA Draft. At 6-foot-10 the Australian has the size and athleticism needed to make an immediate impact for a team that lost Jarell Martin and Jordan Mickey, and his skill set is such at he’ll serve as a point forward for Johnny Jones’ Tigers. How Simmons navigates the balance between scorer and table-setter will be key for a team looking to rebound from their disappointing NCAA tournament loss to NC State.
9. Brandon Ingram, Duke: The reigning national champions have a lot to replace from last season’s team, with three first-round picks (Jahlil Okafor, Justise Winslow and Tyus Jones) and senior leader Quinn Cook all having moved on to the professional ranks. Adding another top-ranked recruiting class to the ranks helps with the adjustment process, with the crown jewel being the 6-foot-8 Ingram. Slender of build, Ingram has the skill set needed to play any of the three perimeter positions in Duke’s offense and there’s a good chance he’ll be asked to do so. While Grayson Allen’s expected to make a sizable jump as a sophomore, Ingram’s production could be the key to a run at a sixth title for Coach K.
10. Wayne Selden Jr., Kansas: How far Bill Self’s loaded team goes this season may rest on the shoulder of the junior off-guard. And how ready Selden is to shepherd this group will depend largely upon his mindset entering the season. Does Selden play as the sometimes deferential player he was in his first two seasons in Lawrence? Or does he play in the “attack mode” shown at the World University Games in South Korea this summer? If Selden is the former, Kansas risks not reaching their full potential even with the talent they have on the perimeter (Frank Mason III, Devonté Graham, etc.) and in the post (Perry Ellis, Carlton Bragg, Cheick Diallo if cleared, etc.).
AND TEN MORE
11. Yogi Ferrell, Indiana: The last standing member of “The Movement” that was supposed to change Indiana basketball, Ferrell will have to lead the way for a talented team facing high expectations.
12. Buddy Hield, Oklahoma: While Iowa State has received a lot of attention as Kansas’ biggest threat in the Big 12, do not overlook Oklahoma with the reigning Big 12 POY being a key reason why.
13. Fred VanVleet, Wichita State: The tandem of VanVleet and Ron Baker has accomplished a great deal to this point in their college careers. VanVleet will look to lead the Shockers to their second Final Four appearance from the point, and don’t be shocked if he pulls it off.
14. Daniel Ochefu, Villanova: The Wildcats are loaded with perimeter talent, but do not overlook the importance of their defensive anchor.
15. Caris LeVert, Michigan: Healthy after playing just 18 games due to a foot injury, the versatile LeVert is a key component for a Michigan team more than capable of rebounding from last year’s 16-16 record.
16. Demetrius Jackson, Notre Dame: With Jerian Grant moving on Jackson will run the show for Mike Brey’s Fighting Irish. Expected by many to make a considerable jump as a junior, Jackson is the kind of talent who can make Notre Dame a contender in the ACC.
17. Ryan Anderson, Arizona: The Wildcats’ closest thing to a proven scorer at this level, the Boston College transfer will need to be that guy for a team looking to mesh a lot of new pieces with holdovers who played in supplementary roles the last couple years.
18. Taurean Waller-Prince, Baylor: As a key cog in one of the nation’s top front courts, the 6-foot-8 senior has the ability to score at all three levels. That will be key for a Baylor team with perimeter questions to answer.
19. Xavier Rathan-Mayes, Florida State: Rathan-Mayes’ scoring abilities aren’t be questioned based upon what he did as a freshman on a team lacking scoring options. Now with the Seminoles loaded with talent, his role as a distributor will be key for a team that can be a sleeper in the ACC.
20. Bronson Koenig, Wisconsin: Given how much the Badgers lost from last season’s national runner-up team, both Koenig and Nigel Hayes will be key players. The pick for most important is Koenig, as he’ll be the one with the ball in his hands at the point.
Ranking the best lead guards in college basketball
We kick off our position-by-position rankings with the lead guards.
What is a lead guard, you ask?
It’s a loose definition, I know, but it’s the guy that we think is going to be the team’s primary ball-handler and/or playmaker. True point guards, combo-guards, shooting guards that operate best with the ball in their hands. They all count.
Dunn was an easy pick here just as he was an easy pick for No. 1 in our top 100 players countdown. As a sophomore last season, Dunn averaged 15.6 points, 7.5 assists, 5.5 boards and 2.7 steals. With LaDontae Henton graduating during the offseason and Ed Cooley’s preference to play uptempo basketball, I wouldn’t be surprised to see those stats on the uptick this year. Dunn does, however, have two major flaws in his game: he turns the ball over too much and he needs to become a more consistent and confident jump-shooter. He’s been putting in the work to improve, but we have to wait and see if it manifests in production on the court.
2. Marcus Paige, North Carolina
We had Paige pegged as the Preseason National Player of the Year last season, and that turned out to be wrong. It wasn’t necessarily because Paige wasn’t good enough. The 6-foot-3 senior spent much of last season battling foot and ankle injuries and was forced into a situation where he had to primarily play as a point guard. Well, Paige is healthy now, and with Joel Berry expected to take over the point guard role for the Tar Heels, Paige should be freed up to be in more of an attacking role.
3. Melo Trimble, Maryland
Trimble’s numbers as a freshman were impressive: 16.2 points, 3.0 assists, 41.2% 3PT, 86.3% FT. As good as those numbers were, perhaps Trimble’s true value came in his late-game demeanor. He was, for lack of a better term, one of the most clutch players in the sport, a major reason that the Terps were able to win so many close games. Losing Dez Wells is going to hurt, but with more talent around him this season, Trimble should be asked to do less offensively as a sophomore. But he’ll still have the ball in his hands late in games, which is why Maryland is a considered a favorite to win the national title.
4. Jamal Murray, Kentucky
At this point, it’s hard to imagine Murray living up to the hype he has entering the season. Anything short of Steph Curry or Jimmer Fredette will almost feel like a disappointment. That’s not to say Murray can’t play. He can. He’s the odds-on favorite to lead Kentucky in scoring and will likely be the primary handler in ball-screen actions. The key for Murray: efficiency and consistency. He has a habit of being a bit of a streaky shooter.
If this list was my own, and not a collaboration with the rest of the CBT team, Jackson would be higher. I think he’s going to have a huge year, good enough to be a second- or third-team all-american. Mike Brey loves to force-feed his lead guards, putting them in ball-screen after ball-screen and allowing them to carry the load offensively, as a scorer and a creator. Jackson has the talent to follow in those footsteps. He may not be as good as Jerian Grant, but he’s got lottery pick written all over him.
6. Fred Van Vleet, Wichita State
Fred Van Vleet is a senior. He reached the Final Four as a freshman, he led Wichita State to a 35-0 record and a No. 1 seed as a sophomore and, as a junior, he helped get the Shockers to the Sweet 16 by beating Kansas in the NCAA tournament. He’s a winner in every sense of the word, and it doesn’t hurt that he averaged 13.6 points and 5.2 assists.
7. Yogi Ferrell, Indiana
Ferrell is the engine that makes Indiana’s high-octane offense go. As a junior, Yogi’s numbers were quite impressive: 16.9 points, 4.9 assists, 1.9 turnovers and 41.2 percent shooting from three. But the reason that the Hoosiers lost 14 games last season was that they were ranked 214th in defensive efficiency, according to KenPom. That wasn’t all on Yogi, but he didn’t exactly solve the issue of Indiana’s sieve-like perimeter defense. I will say this: You may not find a more entertaining point guard to watch this season.
8. Monte Morris, Iowa State
Morris is a junior. He’s also the two-time national leader in assist-to-turnover ratio. Starting at the point on a team that has ranked 16th and 17th nationally in pace the last two years, Morris has a grand total of 66 turnovers. For comparison’s sake, Kris Dunn had 138 turnovers last year alone. The biggest question with Morris, like Iowa State as a whole, is how well he will adjust to Steve Prohm’s offense. Worth noting: Prohm turned Isaiah Canaan into an all-american and an early second round pick while helping Cameron Payne develop into a lottery pick.
9. Tyler Ulis, Kentucky
Murray is the guy that is likely going to put up the impressive numbers for Kentucky this season, but don’t let that blind you to just how good Ulis is. He’s everything that a coach looks for in a point guard: he’s a tough defender, he’s a leader, he’s unselfish, he protects the ball, he creates for his teammates, he can shoot it.
10. Malik Newman, Mississippi State
Newman is a tough guy to rank. On the one hand, the kid is one of the more talented scorers in the country, a combo-guard that can get hot and hit threes from deep. He’s a good bet to lead the entire SEC in scoring. But he’s also on a team that isn’t going to have that many other weapons, meaning that there are going to be times where a bad shot from Newman is a good shot for the Bulldogs. In other words, he’ll be a high-usage, high-scoring, low-efficiency player. How much do you value those offensive ratings?
11. Tyrone Wallace, Cal: Wallace is a guy that I think should be getting more attention nationally. His shooting issues are a red flag, but he’s going to be the lead guard for what should be a Pac-12 contender embracing the small-ball revolution.
12. Xavier Rathan-Mayes, Florida State: Consistency and efficiency. He went for 30-plus three times last season, but he scored in the single digits eight times, shot 28.1 percent from three and averaged 3.4 turnovers. Hopefully, the influx in talent in Tallahassee means he won’t have to do so much.
13. D’Vauntes Smith-Rivera, Georgetown: Arguably the most underrated player in the Big East. His decision to return to school instead of declare for the NBA Draft is the reason Georgetown is a Big East contender.
14. Nic Moore, SMU: Moore’s three postseasons at SMU: snubbed as a sophomore, goaltended as a junior and banned as a senior. It’s a shame, because he’s really, really good.
15. Frank Mason, Kansas: Mason turned into the heart and soul of last year’s Kansas team. He’s tough, he sets a tone defensively and he makes some big shots. The most popular man in Lawrence not named Bill Self.
16. Jalen Brunson, Villanova: How good is Brunson? He may end up moving the reigning co-Big East Player of the Year Ryan Arcidiacono off the ball this season.
17. Isaiah Taylor, Texas: Taylor never really seemed to get into a rhythm after injuring his wrist last November, but he should be a perfect fit at the point for new head coach Shaka Smart.
18. Cat Barber, N.C. State: The former five-star recruit should finally round into form as a junior. He’s had some big moments helping the Wolfpack reach back-to-back Sweet 16s.
19. Bronson Koenig, Wisconsin: Koenig took over for the injured Traevon Jackson midway through last season, keeping his starting spot even when Jackson returned to health. He’ll have a lot on his plate this year as the Badgers replace five of their top seven from last season.
20. Sterling Gibbs, UConn: Gibbs was impressive last season despite Seton Hall’s late season collapse. He’s a stop-gap for UConn at the lead guard spot as they wait for Jalen Adams to be ready to run the shot.
Others considered: Shaq Harrison (Tulsa) Ryan Arcidiacono (Villanova), London Perrantes (Virginia), Maodo Lo (Columbia), Bryce Alford (UCLA), Jalan West (Northwestern State)