David Purdy/Getty Images

Iowa State stakes claim to title of Big 12’s best after dominant win over No. 5 Kansas

Leave a comment

The Big 12 title is going to run through Lawrence until it doesn’t, and an Iowa State win in a building that has played host to so many upset wins that the phrase ‘Hilton Magic’ was created doesn’t mean anything more than Ames, Iowa, never has and never will be a fun place for opposing Big 12 coaches to visit.

I know that.

You know that.

Bill Self and Steve Prohm know that.

But it should not take away from the statement that Iowa State made on Saturday afternoon.

The Cyclones got 24 points from Marial Shayok and shot 13-for-25 from three, pulling away from No. 5 Kansas in the second half of a 77-60 win over the Jayhawks in their Big 12 home opener.

And frankly, it’s not a result that should be all that surprising.

For starters, Kansas was playing without Udoka Azubuike, who suffered a sprained wrist in practice on Friday and was held out for precautionary measures. He’s expected to have an MRI in the coming days to determine the severity of the injury and just how much time he is actually going to miss. His absence was obvious, as the Jayhawks struggled to find a way to run their offense smoothly. They don’t have the guard play that they have had in recent seasons, which is why Bill Self has built his offense around throwing the ball into the post. Dedric Lawson is the best post-feeder on the roster, but when Azubuike is out, he is the guy that moves to the five and is asked to be that post presence.

That is the lineup that changed the game against Oklahoma on Wednesday night. Going small is when the Jayhawks made their run.

It did not work anywhere near as well on Saturday, which frankly, has more to do with Iowa State than it does anything else.

And that gets me to the larger point here: Iowa State is really, really good. This scoreline was not simply a result of a homecourt advantage wreaking havoc on a short-handed, highly-ranked team. This result was the byproduct of being better this year than anyone has acknowledged. It is far too early in the year to say this definitively, but there’s a chance that this group can be better than any team that Fred Hoiberg had during his five-year tenure with the Cyclones.

(It’s worth noting here that this group is currently 15th in KenPom, and Hoiberg never had a team finish better than 16th.)

The reason for that is that current head coach Steve Prohm has but together just about an ideal roster for the modern way that basketball is played. He starts four wings, all of whom stand between 6-foot-4 and 6-foot-6. The smallest of the four — Talen Horton-Tucker — checks in at 240 pounds and has a 7-foot-1 wingspan. It makes them switchable and versatile on the defensive end of the floor, where Marial Shayok, Nick Weiler-Babb and Tyrese Haliburton can all guard up and down somewhere between adequately and effectively. Michael Jacobson starts at the five, where he is averaging 14.5 points and 6-2 boards, while Cameron Lard is probably their most talented big man and definitely is their best rim protector.

The Cyclones are historically a team that has a reputation for being soft on the defensive end, and that’s not this group.

They are, however, as dangerous on the offensive end of the floor as we’ve come to expect out of this program.

It’s starts with this: The best player in the program is Lindell Wigginton, a 6-foot-2 combo-guard that returned to action in the Big 12 opener after missing about a month with a foot injury. He’s one of three players on this roster that are skilled enough to play the point — Weiler-Babb is technically the starting point guard while Haliburton, a sneaky NBA prospect, is averaging 8.3 points, 4.5 boards, 4.2 assists and 2.1 steals while shooting 45 percent from three. Throw in Horton-Tucker, and there are now four perimeter players on this team that are averaging 3.0 assists this season.

That doesn’t include Shayok, who is the leading scorer in the Big 12 at 20.1 points, and Horton-Tucker is the only member of that perimeter rotation that is not a dangerous three-point threat.

Think about that for a second.

Prohm can run out lineups where he has four players on the floor that are capable of being the handler in a ball-screen action while also being able to space the floor if someone else is the handler, and he can do it without sacrificing any of his defensive switchability.

This is what positionless basketball looks like, and we still haven’t seen their best.

Remember, Wigginton probably isn’t back to being himself quite yet. It takes a while to get back into shape and into a rhythm after missing as much time as he did. Solomon Young has missed 11 games. Lard missed the first five games of the season as well. Put another way, the best is yet to come, and to date, they’ve been pretty damn good.

What I like the most about this group is that this Iowa State team is built in the same vein as last year’s Villanova team was. They’re not as good, but they create many of the same matchup problems.

And it was those matchup problems that allowed those Wildcats to run over Kansas en route to the national title game.

It’s too early to predict that Iowa State will do the same in the Big 12 standings, not when Texas Tech might be the redneck version of Virginia and when Oklahoma is busy proving the Ewing Theory true.

But it’s not too early to say that the Cyclones are here to stay, or that if this group reaches their ceiling, it will be the better than any of the Hoiberg-era teams.