Everything seems to be lining up in Fred Hoiberg's fifth season at Iowa State - this is as deep and as talented a team as he has had in Ames. The identity is the same. They still bring in a lot of transfers, they still spread the floor and play uptempo and they still feature line-ups where all five guys can pass and the shoot the ball. There isn't a Royce White on this team, but there's more individual talent up and down their roster than ever before. The Cyclones can field multiple line-ups that can hurt you from every position on the floor.
Iowa State might be the biggest threat to Bill Self's streak of 10 consecutive Big 12 titles. I say might because they are coming off one of the biggest upsets of the season, a 78-73 loss at Texas Tech. On one hand, you have to assume that a coach with as many skins on the wall as Tubby Smith wasn't going to 0-18 in the conference - this isn't Trent Johnson we are talking about it. On the other, if Tech was bound to get a W eventually, you sure don't want it to be your team, not if you are serious about taking a run at the crown.
If you look at Iowa State's schedule this season, one thing is clear. They are a much better team in Hilton Coliseum. All four of their losses have come on the road - neutral court losses to Maryland and South Carolina and road losses at Baylor and Tech. And if they can lose in Lubbock, they can lose anywhere in the Big 12. The point is they will almost have to go undefeated at home to have any realistic chance of knocking off Self. That isn't great news for a Texas team whose two road wins in conference came against Tech and TCU.
Playing on the road is the ultimate test for a team. Things aren't going to go your way and the refs aren't going to be on your side. The other team is going to be dialed in and the energy of their home crowd means they will never be out of the game. If Texas is going to pull off the upset in Ames, they are going to need their best performance of the season, a strong 40 minutes without any prolonged droughts on offense. Iowa State is going to score points on Monday, so Texas is going to have to be able to do the same.
PG - Monte Morris (6'2 170) - While Morris doesn't get a ton of press, he's one of the best "pure PG's" in the country. He reminds me a lot of Tyler Ennis - an average sized guard without a ton of athleticism whose savvy and feel for the game allowed him to walk into a huge role on a high-major team. Morris doesn't get sped up, he doesn't get rattled and he doesn't have any major holes in his game. For a sophomore PG to average 5.6 assists a game on 1.1 turnovers is absurd. Morris vs. Isaiah Taylor should be a super fun individual match-up.
SG - Naz Long (6'4 200) - Long is a solid all-around player but he only really worries you from behind the three-point line, where he shoots 41% from 3 on 7 attempts a game. What I wouldn't give to have a guy like that on the Texas roster. You have to mark him wherever he is on the floor and you have to pick him up in transition or he will absolutely kill you.
SF - Bryce Dejean-Jones (6'6 210) - BDJ is an example of the kind of player Hoiberg didn't have in his first few seasons in Ames - he's a huge wing with NBA-caliber athleticism who can match up with all three positions on the perimeter. If Texas has to play man, he could be a real problem, given the amount of size he has on Taylor and DeMarcus Holland. The key for BDJ is taking good shots and not trying to extend himself beyond his capabilities, which is what happened far too often when he was at UNLV.
PF - Dustin Hogue (6'6 220) - The only senior on their roster who gets playing time, Hogue is a fairly typical glue guy who "does all the little things". He would probably be more valuable for what he brings to the team off the court than on it were it not for the fact that he can shoot 3's too. Hoiberg certainly recruits to a type.
C - Georges Niang (6'8 230) - The centerpiece and a guy with a legitimate shot at winning Big 12 Player of the Year. He doesn't have Royce White's size or athletic ability, but he has a similar all-around game. He's in the best shape of his life after getting serious about dropping weight in the off-season and he can give you points, rebounds, assists and steals over the course of the game. If we are going to stick with the zone, the No. 1 concern is Niang picking it apart from the high post. The key to beating Iowa State is attacking Niang on defense and the glass and getting him in foul trouble.
C - Jameel McKay (6'9 215) - If the Cyclones end up winning the Big 12 it will be because of McKay, as he's the guy who separates this year's team from their predecessors. McKay, a transfer for Marquette who hadn't played in almost two years when he was ruled eligible in January, is a long and athletic shot-blocker who can protect the rim and give Iowa State a chance against teams with bigger front-lines. His per-40 minute numbers are absolutely preposterous - 17.5 points, 10.8 rebounds and 4.4 blocks on 60% shooting.
SG - Matt Thomas (6'4 195) - Here's a stunner. Thomas comes off the bench and strokes 3's. You can pretty much copy and paste the same scouting report for everyone on Iowa State - don't let this guy get any open shots and try to take advantage of him on defense.
Keys to the Game:
1) Styles make fights. Iowa State knows who they are - they are going to push the ball, spread you out on defense and hope you can't take advantage of their lack of size on the other end. There are a number of different ways another team could counter that. Texas could try to push the ball and beat Iowa State at their own game by giving Taylor as many straight line drives to the rim as possible or they could try to slow the tempo and pound the ball inside to the big men. That's the question this team still needs to figure out - what exactly is their identity? If Iowa State gets out to a big lead, is everyone bought into where the ball needs to go and how they are going to get back into the game? Sticking to your identity is how you keep your composure in an atmosphere like Hilton.
2) Can you zone Iowa State for 40 minutes? Saturday's loss to Kansas reminded me a lot of the game between Baylor and Iowa State a few weeks ago in Waco. The home team got off to an early lead before the road team figured out their zone and methodically worked their way back into it. It's just hard to beat a really good team playing a zone if you aren't about that zone life. What I mean by that is you have to recruit to the zone to give it a chance - it's no coincidence that Syracuse's best season since Carmelo Anthony came with Michael Carter-Williams (6'6) and Brandon Triche (6'4) at the top of the 2-3, as their length made it very difficult to enter the ball into the high post and helped them turn the other team over.
3) Will Rick Barnes get creative? Texas has the biggest team in the Big 12, which is great ... if you know how to use it. If we can't punish other teams for their lack of size and they can punish us for a lack of speed, then it really doesn't matter. If things don't go right early, will Barnes be willing to roll the dice by moving Holmes to the 4 and playing three guards to match up with Iowa State? Or will he stick with his big men to the bitter end? There's no right answer here - it's probably going to be a matter of feel over the course of the game. Hoiberg is one of the best X and O's coaches in the country, so Barnes is going to have to be on his game tonight.
The game is at 8:00 PM Central on ESPN. The whole country will be watching so let's hope Texas brings their A game tonight. They will need it.