9:00 PM EST, ESPN – Line: Iowa State -4.5
With just a week remaining in the Regular Season, there is still plenty up for grabs in the Big Twelve, as the sixteenth-ranked Oklahoma Sooners travel to Hilton Coliseum in Ames, Iowa to face the twelfth-ranked Iowa State Cyclones. With league-leading Kansas limping towards the finish line, Oklahoma (20-8, 11-5 in Big Twelve) stands poised to capitalize on that opportunity, as they trail the Jayhawks by just one game in the conference standings. Winners of eight out of their last nine outings, Lon Kruger’s charges are peaking at the right time, which has put them in a position to potentially share the Big Twelve Regular Season crown for the first time since the 2004-2005 campaign. Like Austin Powers, this team has preferred to “lived dangerously” over the past three contests, in which they rallied late to overcome a potentially crushing defeat; on February 17th, a late run propelled them past Texas in a narrow 71-69 victory, followed by a 79-75 overtime escape at Texas Tech, with a 67-60 comeback win at home against TCU on Saturday serving as their most recent triumph. Trailing by eight points at Halftime, the Sooners went on a tear in the Second Half, outscoring the visiting Horned Frogs 39-24 over the final twenty minutes. Kruger’s defense stepped up, relegating TCU to 41.5% shooting from the field, including 16-of-36 from within the three-point arc (44.4%), with just ten assists, outrebounding the Frogs 33-26 and racking up six blocks. Offensively, it was far from a stellar performance for Oklahoma, who managed to net a modest 44.9% from the field, but was clearly the aggressor Saturday, particularly during the Second Half; the hosts drew twenty-one personal fouls, affording them twenty-seven free-throw attempts, of which they made eighteen (66.7%), outscoring TCU by eight points in that regard. After a string of subpar performances, Buddy Hield emerged from his slumber to score a team-high twenty-one points on 6-of-11 shooting (54.5%), including 3-of-6 from beyond the arc (50.0%), with a career-best thirteen rebounds, and an assist. It was an encouraging sign for the conference’s leading scorer, who had shot a miserable 7-of-29 overall over the last two games (24.1%).
Kruger will hope that that offensive outburst will carry over to tonight’s challenge against the Cyclones, whom his charges handled 94-83 back on February 9th in Norman, Oklahoma. On that day, the hosts shot a blistering 50.6% from the field, including 29-of-56 from within the three-point arc (51.8%), and 10-of-21 from beyond it (47.6%), as the visitors failed to provide much resistance throughout the contest. The Sooners assisted on seventeen of their thirty-nine field goals and committed a scant seven turnovers. In fact, they only shot six free-throws over the full forty minutes of play (making all six), proof that the Cyclones couldn’t be bothered to even foul them. The aforementioned Hield dropped seventeen points in the victory, with teammate TaShawn Thomas logging a game-high twenty-two points on 11-of-18 shooting (61.1%) to go along with eleven rebounds, five assists, a steal, and three blocks. Defensively, the hosts were far from stifling, but they did manage to take advantage of the pace of play, harassing Iowa State into fourteen turnovers, allowing them to get out in transition for easy fast-break points. Oklahoma, one of the older teams in the Big Twelve has been solid on both ends of the court in conference play, ranking in the top four in a number of categories. Offensively, they’ve averaged 71.3 points (3rd in Big Twelve) on 44.4% shooting from the field (3rd in Big Twelve), including 48.1% from within the three-point arc (3rd in Big Twelve) and 36.8% from beyond it (4th n Big Twelve), with four different players scoring in double-figures. Hield has averaged 17.0 points in league play, followed by Isaiah Cousins (12.0) and the aforementioned Thomas (11.2), with Ryan Spangler rounding out the quartet with 10.4 points. Thomas, who was a huge factor in the victory over the Cyclones earlier last month would figure to play a huge role in the outcome of tonight’s game; the Senior Forward has posted averages of 6.9 rebounds, 2.0 assists, and a team-best 1.5 blocks in Big Twelve play, and brings a toughness factor that can’t really be quantified. At 6-8, 240 lbs. the transfer from Houston could serve as the catalyst for a lengthy run through the conference tournament and the NCAA Tournament abroad. His presence has been a big reason why the Sooners have been so stingy around the rim, limiting the opposition to 39.7% shooting overall (3rd in Big Twelve), including 42.5% inside the three-point line (3rd in Big Twelve), while racking up a solid 5.6 blocks per game (2nd in Big Twelve).
Meanwhile, where the Sooners have triumphed in close contests of late, the Cyclones (20-8, 10-6 in Big Twelve) are faltering. After three consecutive victories, Iowa State has now lost back-to-back contests for the first time this season, and as a result have fallen into a three-way tie for Third Place in the Big Twelve along with the West Virginia and Baylor. The reigning Conference Tournament Champions fell last Wednesday at Baylor in a 79-70 defeat in Ames, snapping a twenty-one-game winning streak at Hilton Coliseum. That day, Fred Hoiberg’s charges couldn’t throw the ball in the ocean on the offensive end of the court, shooting just 43.4% from the field, including a dreadful 6-of-24 from beyond the arc (25.0%). Ironically, they thrived when Baylor gave them the opportunity to get into the paint, where they netted seventeen of their nineteen attempts (58.6%), which also helped them get to the charity stripe, where they calmly drained eighteen of their twenty free-throws (90.0%). But as they have so many times this season, this team has lived and died from the perimeter. When the Cyclones attack opponents from both inside and outside they are one of the most formidable offensive units in the country, but when they fall in love with the money ball they risk becoming far too one-dimensional. In Saturday’s loss at Kansas State, they shot a much better 11-of-27 from beyond the arc (40.7%), but even that couldn’t save them as the Wildcats rallied from a seven-point deficit to earn the 70-69 victory. The key to the game was the visitors’ inability to defend the rim, as the hosts feasted in the painted area, connecting on 24-of-41 attempts inside the three-point line (58.5%), and assisting on eighteen of their twenty-nine field goals overall. In turn, Iowa State went cold when they got close to the rim, making just fourteen of their thirty-one attempts inside the perimeter (45.2%). Whereas the Bears conceded the lane, the Wildcats constructed a wall, keeping the Cyclones out and rendering them largely inept in the Second Half. Depth was also an issue for Hoiberg, as his Bench accounted for a whole three points, while Kansas State’s reserves scored thirty-seven on the day.
So after a disappointing week, Iowa State now needs a good deal of help if they are to earn a share of what would be their first Big Twelve Regular Season Championship since the 2000-2001 campaign. As we mentioned earlier, Hoiberg’s kids are one of the best offensive teams in the country, and arguably head and shoulders above the rest of the conference. However, that hasn’t been the case of late, as their performance on the offensive end has dipped significantly over the past two outings; before the aforementioned losses to Baylor and Kansas State, this team was averaging a league-best 79.8 points on 48.6% shooting from the field, but in those two defeats could muster only 69.5 points on 43.2% shooting from the field. Perhaps it’s simply a matter of tired legs, but then again this is one of the more experienced teams in the Big Twelve, so that really shouldn’t be the case. Sophomore Guard Monte Morris turned in fifteen points in the loss against the Wildcats, but landed hard after a drive to the rim in the Second Half, while taking a blow to the head in the process before taking his leave, putting his status for tonight’s contest in doubt. Morris is averaging 11.5 points on 50.4% shooting, and a team-high 5.4 assists in conference play, so his presence will be surely missed. Hoiberg will need Bryce Jones to break out of his funk to fill that void, after begin rendered scoreless in Manhattan Saturday, and relegated to single-digits in three of the past four outings. Jones has averaged 10.0 points and 4.9 rebounds in league play, and is one of the better defenders to be found on a roster without many. And that there is the issue; if Iowa State isn’t performing like an offensive juggernaut, their defense will more than likely be exposed. In Big Twelve play, the Cyclones have allowed 72.5 points (10th in Big Twelve) on 42.9% shooting from the field (7th in Big Twelve), including 45.6% from within the three-point arc (5th in Big Twelve) and 37.9% from beyond it (8th in Big Twelve), along with 15.0 assists (9th in Big Twelve) and forcing just 11.6 turnovers (7th in Big Twelve). No team in the league has permitted more three-point field goals than these guys (8.4), and not team has seen their opponents attempt more against them (22.3), which means it’s open season on the Cyclones from the perimeter. Iowa State doesn’t apply much pressure defensively, which is evident from how many times they send the opposition to the charity stripe (14.2). Aggressive defensive teams commit fouls, it’s just part of the game, but in Ames that energy is clearly being utilized on the opposite end of the court. That was the problem when these teams met back in February, as the Sooners shot well over 50.0% from the field and did virtually whatever they wanted for forty minutes.