Erwin Center | Austin, TX | Tip: 7 P.M. CT | TV: Big 12 Network (Affiliate list)/ESPN3.com
LRT Consecutive Game #244
February 13th has been a day circled on the calendars of Longhorn fans for the last two months. Following the initial announcement of a season-long suspension for sophomore point guard Myck Kabongo, an NCAA reinstatement committee reduced his penalty to 23 games in their ruling on December 21st. That meant that while the Longhorns would have to continue without Kabongo until that magical day of February 13th, if they could remain competitive without him, perhaps that final eight-game run could actually be meaningful.
Since that ruling, the Longhorns have gone 3-9, erasing any hopes for an NCAA at-large bid. Instead, Texas is now just hoping to avoid the first day of the Big 12 tournament, an outcome that also seems incredibly unlikely. With eight games left, the Longhorns are four games behind Iowa State and Baylor, who are tied for fifth place. Unless Kabongo can completely remake this team’s identity in the final four weeks, the Longhorns’ only hope for a 15th-consecutive NCAA bid will be to win four games in four days at the Big 12 tournament.
Kabongo will certainly make a difference for a young team that has shown an ability to compete with the league’s best teams. The question is whether or not his leadership can get the Longhorns to actually close out their big wins, something they have done only once this season. Texas lost large leads in the final three minutes against both UCLA and West Virginia, and coughed up a double-digit second-half lead against Kansas. The Longhorns also failed to convert in the final minute at Baylor, ultimately losing in overtime.
Unfortunately, the team’s problems are much too large for one sophomore to fix on his own. Although freshman point guard Javan Felix has an ugly turnover rate of 26.9%, he is not the only Longhorn unable to control the ball. Seven of the other nine rotation players also have turnover marks north of 20%, with Julien Lewis only missing out on that distinction by one-tenth of a percentage point. Kabongo cannot touch the basketball 100% of the time, and he cannot suddenly make Cameron Ridley, Connor Lammert, and Prince Ibeh have soft hands.
Kabongo also will not magically give the Longhorns enough scoring threats to make the team tough to defend. Lewis is mired in a terrible slump, shooting 28.5% from the field in his last three games. Sheldon McClellan and Rick Barnes are in a battle of wills, making McClellan’s playing time almost as unpredictable as his shooting stroke.
Fortunately, Jonathan Holmes is expected to make his return tonight for Texas. The Longhorns have struggled mightily at defending in the post since he broke his hand in the first half of a loss to Oklahoma. His absence has also caused problems for Texas on the glass, and taken away any real interior threat on the offensive end.
On his own, Kabongo could not solve all of the team’s problems. But if Holmes returns to form at the same time that the team gets its leader back on the court, the Longhorns could suddenly become much more competitive. That could cause problems for Iowa State, Kansas State, Oklahoma, and Baylor, who all make trips to the Erwin Center during the final four weeks of the season. With those four teams currently bunched within 1.5 games of each other in the league standings, it’s clear that the Horns can make quite an impact on the Big 12 race down the stretch.
Meet the Cyclones
For an in-depth look at the Iowa State roster, check out LRT’s game preview from the first meeting between these two teams.
The first match-up
For a complete breakdown of what went wrong and what Texas did right, check out LRT’s post-game wrap from the January 12th contest.
The Cyclones have seen mixed results through the first half of the Big 12 season, with nearly all of their wins coming within the friendly confines of Hilton Coliseum. Five of Iowa State’s six league wins have come at home, extending their Hilton win streak to 20 games. On the road, however, the Cyclones are just 1-4, with the lone win coming against cellar-dwelling TCU.
When these two teams first met back in January, Iowa State was ranked in the Top 20 nationally in both offensive and defensive rebounding percentages. Coach Fred Hoiberg had expressed surprise at his team’s success on the glass, having assumed it would be a weakness for his ballclub.
Since the calendar has turned to league play, though, those concerns have proven to be well-founded. Iowa State’s offensive rebounding mark is just 30.5% in league games, ranking dead last in the Big 12. The drop-off has not been as severe on the other end of the court, where ISU is sixth in the league with a 66.3% mark on the defensive glass.
The Cyclone offense has made up for the missing rebounds by controlling the basketball. For the year, Iowa State has a very respectable 19.4% turnover mark, but the team has managed to cut that down to just 18.3% against Big 12 opponents. As a result, Iowa State has been able to keep its efficient offense humming, leading the league with 1.092 points per possession in conference play.
Even with their clinical offense, Iowa State has still managed to make things interesting for their fans. The team’s home win over West Virginia came after blowing a double-digit lead in the second half, and the victory only came after a last-second Georges Niang layup and a controversial defensive stop on the final play.
Against Oklahoma State, the Cyclones remained hexed by Gallagher-Iba Arena when they gave up the winning bucket to Marcus Smart with only 3.1 seconds to go. Iowa State then wasted what seemed to be their final chance when Chris Babb led Tyrus McGee out of bounds with a bizarre pass on his inbounds from the sideline. But, Babb redeemed himself by establishing position on Oklahoma State’s ensuing inbounds and was shoved in the back by Le’Bryan Nash with 1.7 to go. On the final play, McGee did get off a good look at a game-winning three, but Iowa State ultimately fell short of its first win in Stillwater since 1988.
Despite that frustrating loss and a flat performance in a road defeat to Texas Tech, the Cyclones are still just 1.5 games off the lead in the Big 12. They are also firmly entrenched in NCAA discussions, with every one of the 74 brackets tracked by the Bracket Matrix including the Cyclones at an average seed of 10.
If Iowa State is going to remain in the NCAA field, Will Clyburn will have to bounce back quickly from a rough performance against Kansas State. The senior was just 2-for-9 in Saturday’s loss and posted an ugly offensive rating of 66, well off of his 107.3 rating for the season. Clyburn has a usage rate of nearly 25% in the Iowa State offense, making a brutal performance like Saturday’s even more damaging to the Cyclones. Fortunately for ISU, Clyburn had a career day against the Longhorns in January, scoring 16 points and posting an offensive rating of 137.
While the Cyclones hope that Texas can provide an opportunity for Clyburn to get back on track, the team also is looking to earn some extra road wins as they build their tournament résumé and battle for the Big 12 title. Ken Pomeroy projects the Cyclones as winners in only two of their final four road games — tonight at Texas, and in the season finale at West Virginia. Still, ISU’s win probability is only 61% against the Longhorns and 60% against the Mountaineers, making both outcomes not much better than a toss-up. Losing one or both of those games would be incredibly damaging to Iowa State’s big-picture goals.
Keys to the game
1) Clean up the glass – The Longhorns are the worst defensive rebounding team in the Big 12, allowing opponents to reclaim more than 37% of their missed shots. Fortunately, the Cyclones have had issues of their own when it comes to extending possessions, even though it wasn’t readily apparent in the first game between these two teams. Against the Longhorns, both Clyburn and Percy Gibson snagged four offensive rebounds, and the Cyclones reclaimed more than 36% of their misses. With Iowa State posting an effective field goal mark of nearly 54% in league games and turning it over only 18.3% of the time, the Longhorns have to take advantage of their stops and limit ISU to one-shot possessions.
2) Limit transition buckets – The Iowa State defense doesn’t force many turnovers, and the Longhorns only coughed it up on 17.5% of their possessions in Ames earlier this year. Still, the Texas turnovers were generally unforced and led to 23 Cyclone points. With Kabongo at the helm, the Longhorns have a much better shot at avoiding those kinds of mistakes tonight. If they can manage to do so, the Horns should be able to stay in the game until the final minutes and have a chance at pulling off the upset.
3) Lock down the perimeter – In the last four meetings between these two teams, the results have fallen right in line with Iowa State’s success behind the arc. The Cyclones knocked down 21 of their 47 three-point attempts (44.7%) in their two wins over Texas, while shooting just 25.6% (10-for-29) in the two losses to the Horns.
After Saturday’s loss to Oklahoma State, Texas coach Rick Barnes said that Kabongo and Demarcus Holland would be starting tonight against the Cyclones. That gives the Longhorns two excellent perimeter defenders against an Iowa State team that is outstanding beyond the arc. There’s no word on whether or not Lewis will also be in the starting five, but the sophomore guard will certainly play a key role in locking down the arc, whether it’s as a starter or a reserve.
If the Longhorns can rotate quickly and stick with the Iowa State shooters, it will force Niang and Melvin Ejim to generate points inside. If not, Texas fans will have to deal with another barrage of threes and likely another Iowa State win.