Preview: West Virginia Mountaineers – Iowa State Cyclones
With a depleted roster, Iowa State heads to Morgantown for the return bout against the Mountaineers. All advantages point to WVU, but in the Big 12, that might mean the underdog has the favorite just where it wants it.
UPDATING THE CYCLONES
West Virginia has several games which have to rankle, given the fact of leads relinquished and opportunities lost, but none might stick so much in the collective craw as the Iowa State game on Jan. 31, at least from a competitive standpoint. The Mountaineers were flat throughout, and made Iowa State look as if it still had last year’s veteran team instead of this year’s rebuilding one. ISU rolled up a 93-77 win, scoring the most points it has in any Big 12 game this year.
Since that resounding win, Iowa State has gone just 1-5, with some of that due to long term absences. Nick Weiler-Babb (Sr., 6-5, 205 lbs.) was the sparking point for the Cyclone offense, but has now been ruled out for the season with a knee injury, while Solomon Young (6-8, 245 lbs.) has also sidelined with a knee problem. Donovan Jackson (Jr., 6-2, 175 lbs.) will be unavailable for play against WVU as he attends his father’s funeral, and backup Hans Brase (Sr., 6-9, 230 lbs.) is questionable. That could leave the Cyclones with as few as six players, but while that’s the nadir of the season, being below strength is not an unfamiliar situation for the men of Ames this year. Five of the 10 eligible players have missed a total of 30 games this year, and they have been at full roster strength in only 10 contests this season.
Still, head coach Steve Prohm isn’t totally out of weapons. Freshmen Lindell Wigginton (6-2, 190 lbs.) and Cameron Lard (6-9, 225 lbs.) average 15.9 and 13.3 per outing, with Lard also handling much of the rebounding with 8.2 per game. It will be a lonely bench if Brase isn’t available, with only Jakolby Long -6-4, 210 lbs.) backstopping the starting five and leaving Iowa State with only two players taller than six feet, six inches to work with.
Given the personnel handicaps, ISU might try to slow the pace somewhat, although it did not do so with just seven available bodies against TCU on Wednesday. The Cyclones still managed to put up 83 points, and built an 11-point first half advantage on its way to 47 at the break. Fatigue could have been a factor as they scored 36 in the second, but the upshot is that they still possess enough offense to win games, even in their current shorthanded state.
All signs, from motivation to numbers advantages, favor West Virginia. That’s a trap the Mountaineers should know to watch out for.
|West Virginia (20-8 /9-6) vs. ISU (13-14 / 4-11)||Sat Feb 24 6:00 PM ET|
|WVU Coliseum||Morgantown, WV||Series: ISU 7-5|
|RPI: WVU – 24 ISU- 115||TV: ESPNU||Sirius/XM: 83 / 83|
Just a few days ago, WVU traveled to Baylor on the short end of several measurements. The Mountaineers had just yielded another winnable game, extending their snake-bitten status in Allen Fieldhouse. The Bears were the hottest team in the league, riding a five-game winning streak. West Virginia’s press was no longer the fearsome obstacle it had been. So what happened? The visitors completely dominated the action, turning the table on a Bear crowd that clearly expected their rampage to continue.
That’s not to say the same thing is going to happen in this game. It’s just to point out that it is not a foregone conclusion that West Virginia is going to roll. Iowa State had just eight turnovers against the Mountaineers in their first meeting, and they also played that game with Weiler-Babb — their primary distributor, ballhandler and starting point of the offense. They weren’t as short-handed as they will be for this game, though.
Does that automatically turn into attempts by WVU to speed up the game? ISU is very comfortable playing at that pace, but can it do so with the subs that now will be starters, and who will have to play 35+ minutes? West Virginia’s best combination has been making the game go fast on defense but slowing the pace some on offense, as its transition attack has ranged from o.k. to hideous for much of the season. It can’t push the pace so much that it messes up its best chances to be successful when it has the ball.
Also of import is Iowa State’s motivation. The Cyclones are now one game below the .500 mark, and need to win at least two of their final three, plus one in the Big 12 Championship, to assure a .500 record and a shot at an NIT berth. Is that important to them at this point? Will playing for all those injured players, plus the bereaved Jackson, be a factor? Those sorts of motivators might get overcooked at the pro level, but in college, they can be very real. Don’t be surprised if ISU comes out with a good bit of steely determination in this game. In many respects, their program is like that of West Virginia’s, and can be at its toughest when the situation appears bleak. Circling the wagons on the road might, on the surface, seem to be even tougher, but it can also foster the “us against the world” motivation.
There’s no skirting the fact, though, that this is a game that West Virginia needs to win. Another loss to a sub-100 RPI team would likely cost it a seed line in the NCAA tournament, and affect its now-realistic chances for a second place finish in the Big 12. Taking care of business as expected isn’t a scenario that has played out much in the league this year, but that’s the path that WVU must follow on the front end of the weekend doubleheader.
In 13 of of WVU’s 15 games in Big 12 play, opponents have shot more free throws than the Mountaineers. Given West Virginia’s physical nature, that should not be a surprise, although the disparities of some (ahem, 35-2) are egregious. The two games in which the Gold and Blue got to the line more? Baylor on Jan. 9, when WVU worked a 14-11 advantage, and Kansas State on Feb 3 (24-20).
On the season, opponents have taken 108 more free throws than the Mountaineers, but have outscored them by just 51 points at the line. That’s partly due to West Virginia’s league-leading 76.8% free throw success rate.
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Iowa State’s school-record streak of six consecutive NCAA appearances is in extreme jeopardy. The Cyclones will have to win the Big 12 Championship in order to add to the current half-dozen straight trips to the Big Dance. This is a totally different team, of course, but ISU has won three of the last four, so there’s at least some knowledge of what it takes among veterans on the roster.
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WVU will name the 2018-19 Mountaineer during the game. The candidates are Timothy Eads, a freshman majoring in strategic communications from Buffalo; Trevor Kiess, a senior accounting major minoring in pre-law and legal studies from Elkins; Jesse Lackey, a senior secondary education and English major from Salem; and Troy Salatino, a sophomore secondary education and history major from Wheeling. Kiess has been the backup Mountaineer this year.
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Iowa State owns 28 wins over Top 25 schools in the last five seasons, making it fourth nationally in that metric. The Big 12 stands tall overall in that group, with Kansas (#1 -39), Oklahoma (T4 – 28), Baylor (#7 – 25) and West Virginia (T10 – 22) also on the list. No other league has more than three teams in the Top 10.