Heartbeat of the Heartland: Iowa State Seeks to Surprise in Big 12 Basketball

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Four out, eight in.

The four words can sum up what Iowa State was facing this season. The Cyclones have a school-record streak of six consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances but had to replace four players who helped make that run possible – Monte’ Morris, a four-year starter at point guard; perimeter players Matt Thomas and Naz Mitrou-Long plus versatile forward Deonte Burton. All they did was combine to average nearly 60 points a game.

This year’s team added eight newcomers/first-year players plus the mystery those unknowns bring. Hyped for what they can supposedly do, they often fail to live up to an expectation bar that is set far too high.

Thus far, the assessment of the newcomers and this year’s team remains in the development stages. Iowa State was picked to finish near the bottom of the Big 12 and that’s the realistic view considering how much this is a team/program in transition.

Steve Prohm has been in Ames for two seasons. Replacing The Mayor (Fred Hoiberg) was certainly more of a challenge than most new coaches face. So far, he’s 52-23 overall including this season’s results. Cyclones fans are loyal but they’re still a bit skeptical of The New Guy.

The doubt started creeping in after Iowa State started 0-2. Opening on the road and losing at Missouri was forgivable. Following that up by losing the home opener to Milwaukee – a team expected to finish in the bottom half of the Horizon League – was disastrous.

Since then, though, Iowa State has won five in a row with its next game Thursday at home against in-state rival Iowa. After the stumbling start, Prohm made a lineup change that thus far has proved a panacea.

After the 0-2 start and with the team heading to play the Puerto Rico Shootout in Myrtle Beach, S.C., Prohm moved Nick Weiler-Babb to point guard. Iowa State went 3-0 to win the championship trophy and Weiler-Babb was named most valuable player.

The Cyclones had failed to break 60 in their first two games but Weiler-Babb has sufficiently juiced the offense. Since Prohm made the switch, Iowa State is averaging 84.6 points during its winning streak. The 6-foot-5 junior, who Prohm said before the season was the team’s best NBA prospect, has smoothly run the offense and allowed senior Donovan Jackson and freshman Lindell Wiggington to comfortably operate as wings.

Wiggington, a highly-touted freshman, was considered Morris’ heir apparent but Weiler-Babb has the seal of approval of his predecessor. Last season, Morris suggest to Prohm that Weiler-Babb had the tools and skills needed to handle the point.

“His basketball I.Q. is really good. He has a really good feel, a really good pace to his game. His assist-to-turnover ratio right now is 6 to 1,” Prohm said. “He has a really good understanding for what we want.”

Weiler-Babb played his freshman season at Arkansas before transferring, following a similar path blazed by older brother Chris. Last season, he was a backcourt reserve on a team with a trio of productive guards. Weiler-Babb is one of older and most-experienced players on the roster so he’s comfortable taking over a key position.

“We’ve got a little bit more confidence to us,” Weiler-Babb said of Iowa State’s five-game winning streak. “I like the ball in my hands. I like being a decision maker. “It definitely does (help me be more aggressive). Also, being the older guy on the team, being in the system for three years.”

Super shooter, not a super villain

Hear the name “Bane” and the mind pivots to Tom Hardy’s bad guy in “The Dark Knight Rises.” TCU has a Bane but he’s a pure do-gooder for the Horned Frogs.

Sophomore guard/forward Desmond Bane is having a break-out season for TCU, which is 8-0 and ranked No. 20 heading into Tuesday’s Metroplex showdown with SMU. Thus far he has doubled his scoring average from last season, averaging 14.1 per game and one of five Frogs averaging in double figures.

“We love to share the ball,” the 6-foot-5 Bane said. “Everybody can score. It’s going to be different guys on different nights.”

The next-to-last signee in coach Jamie Dixon’s first recruiting class, Bane started to make contributions at the end of last season. He made three crucial free throws that helped TCU upset top-seeded Kansas in the Big 12 tournament. And as the Frogs made an unlikely run to the NIT championship, he stepped in for injured guard Jaylen Fisher and averaged nine points in five games.

Bane’s confidence was boosted over the summer when he went to camp with the Under-19 World Cup team. He didn’t make the roster but he was one of the final cuts.

 “Desmond’s good,” Dixon said. “What is good about him is how much he’s improved from last year to this year. He’s so much better off the dribble. And our guys have so much confidence in him. We thought he was going to be a good player, but I think he’s certainly elevated himself to beyond that.”

Bane is TCU’s top 3-point shooter, making 20 of 32 attempts for a sizzling 62.5 percent. He also tops the Frogs in shooting percentage at an eye-popping 69.6 percent.

 “I’m trying to understand why we don’t get more shots for him out of our motion and our transition,” Dixon said. “We do have good balance, but his numbers stand out. You’ve got to get him a few more looks.”

Longhorns shortcomings

Texas lost overtime games to No. 1 Duke and No. 12 Gonzaga in the PK80 tournament. Good showings with disappointing outcomes for a team still learning to close the deal. In their next game, the Longhorns sleep-walked through an 82-58 buy-a-win against Florida A&M.

There was no celebrating. UT players were as somber as they would be after a loss.

“That’s ’cause I jumped their ass in the locker room,” Texas coach Shaka Smart said.

The Rattlers had won one of nine games and had no chance against the Longhorns but Texas performed poorly, missing 15-of-19 3-pointers and going 10-of-23 from the line.

“If we’re going to compete against teams like Duke and Gonzaga, top-10 or top whatever teams that they are, then we need to have our standard at a lot higher level,” junior forward Dylan Osetkowski said. “Nothing against Florida A&M. “I thought they played very well, knocked some shots down. But it’s about us. It’s not about the other team. We’ve got to be at a better level at everything for the next game and all future games.”

That’s exactly part of the message Smart is trying to send to a team coming off an 11-22 season. The Longhorns proved in Portland they have the talent to play with top teams but have yet to prove they can win consistently.

“It’s human nature,” Smart said. “It’s something we’ve got to teach these guys to battle. Yeah, we can win not quite being at our best. Uh-uh. We’ve got to be our best. That’s really what winning guys and winning teams learn to do.”

Three from deep

  • Oklahoma freshman guard Trae Young averaged 28.8 points, 8.8 assists, 3.7 rebounds and 2.3 steals in the month of November. He’s the first freshman to lead Division I in scoring in the season’s first month since Indiana’s Eric Gordon in 2007. Young, Gordon and Kansas State’s Michael Beasley are the only freshmen in the last 20 years to have three 30-point games in November. Young leads D-I in scoring and is third in assists.
  • Senior guard Devonté Graham had 35 points for the second consecutive game as Kansas beat Syracuse in Miami. He’s the first Jayhawk since Andrew Wiggins (41 and 30 in March 2014) to score 30 in back-to-back games. Graham had seven 3-pointers against the Orange, the most by a Kansas player since Mario Chalmers had eight against Texas in March 2008.
  • Baylor’s bench and depth took a big hit with 6-foot-8 senior forward Terry Maston being sidelined until January with a broken hand. The Bears started the season with just 11 players on scholarship. That’s down to eight with Maston’s injury. Baylor has brought in two players from the football team – Ish Wainwright, who played basketball for four years but spent last season as a tight end for the Bears, and sophomore running back Obim Okeke – to fill in as practice players.

Quote to note

Kansas State junior guard Xavier Sneed scored a career-high 21 in Sunday’s 84-79 victory at Vanderbilt and is averaging 12 points a game for the 7-1 Wildcats. Coach Bruce Weber:

“He is one of the most improved players, not only in our league but in the entire country. He is an elite-level athlete. He has really worked at his game hard. I think he understands what it is about now. He came back from the NCAA Tournament last year and told me, ‘I understand now. I understand how hard it is. I understand what I have to do.’ ”