Hilton Coliseum | Ames, IA | Tip: 6 P.M. CT | TV: ESPN2
Vegas: Iowa State -6 | KenPom: Iowa State, 81-76 (68%)
With less than three weeks left in the regular season, the Texas Longhorns are feeling quite comfortable with their NCAA chances, and still sit just a game out in the Big 12 title race. For a team that was predicted to finish 8th by the coaches during the pre-season, that is quite an accomplishment.
To reach this point with a stellar record, Texas had to survive a brutal stretch of four consecutive games against ranked opponents. The Longhorns not only mowed down all four, but did it in the midst of a seven-game win streak. Texas had the benefit of playing three of those teams — Iowa State, Kansas State, and Kansas — at home, which means that the back half of its league schedule is loaded with tough road tests.
In their first of those tests, the Longhorns laid an egg at Kansas State. The team turned it over early and often, digging a huge hole that was made even deeper when Jonathan Holmes suffered a knee injury midway through the first half. Texas managed to rebound nicely from that meltdown with two home wins last week, but now the team must tackle the league’s toughest road games, back-to-back.
Tonight, the Longhorns square off with Iowa State at Hilton Coliseum, a place where the Cyclones have won 21 out of their last 24 conference games. With a trip to Allen Fieldhouse to face first-place Kansas on Saturday, it would be easy for Texas to look ahead, but against a talented, high-octane offense in a gym where visitors rarely win, the Longhorns certainly can’t afford to. However, if Texas can manage to escape with the road upset tonight, its title hopes will still be alive for a monumental Saturday showdown.
Keys to the game
1) Pound the paint – In the first meeting between these two teams, the Longhorn frontcourt duo of Holmes and Cameron Ridley exploited Texas’ size advantage in the paint. The pair combined for 39 points and 18 boards, with Ridley posting a double-double. If Texas is going to pull off the upset tonight, it will have to once again pound the ball down low and expose the mismatch.
2) Stop transition – Iowa State has been known as an up-tempo, three-point shooting team for most of Coach Fred Hoiberg’s tenure in Ames. The Cyclones are still a quick team this season, but the accuracy from beyond the arc has taken a dip this season. Iowa State is currently ranked 170th out of 351 Division I teams in three-point accuracy, down significantly after a season in which it finished 34th in the nation.
That isn’t to say that Iowa State is taking less threes this season. In fact, the team takes nearly 40% of its looks from long range, making it one of the top 50 teams nationally in terms of three-point shot distribution. However, the Cyclones are great at knocking down open triples in transition, something that Texas must limit tonight. The Longhorns have to avoid turning it over and firing up the ISU break, and they have to beat their men down the court after missed shots.
Of course, simply finding the shooters as Iowa State gets in transition won’t be enough to win at Hilton. The Longhorns really can’t afford to give up many two-point transition hoops, either. The Texas defense must stop the ball and force the Cyclones to run a half-court offense, something ISU sometimes lacks the patience to do. If the Horns can get their half-court defense set on most possessions, they will have a shot to get the road win tonight.
3) Crash the glass – Iowa State is an undersized team, so it doesn’t do a very good job reclaiming its own missed shots. That fact isn’t too surprising, but the Cyclones’ success on the defensive glass does seem to clash with conventional wisdom. However, the ‘Clones can thank their strong transition game for the defensive rebounding success, as most opponents have to sacrifice a few offensive rebounders in an effort to stop the ISU break.
With Texas likely committing its own guards to stopping transition, it will be on the the Longhorn bigs to earn second chances. Since Iowa State’s strong defensive numbers are built on preventing opponents from scoring second-chance points, even just a few extra offensive rebounds could make a big difference for the Horns tonight.