Kansas faces perhaps its toughest challenge of the Big 12 season right out of the chute when it travels to Ames to take on fellow contenders Iowa State. Thanks to a mild quirk in the schedule, Kansas gets the Cyclones twice in the first seven games, meaning they have an opportunity to get a huge leg up on the rest of the league with two wins over Iowa State.
Kansas probably lucks out in playing Iowa State so early for a pair of reasons. First, it is still winter break in Ames, and while there will certainly be students there, there will be fewer than there would be for a game next month. (Of course, it wasn’t a student who attempted to assault Bill Self.)
Secondly, and probably more importantly, this will be just the fourth game this season for star guard Lindell Wigginton, who sat out much of November and December due to injury. He is (I assume) fully healthy now, but obviously still rusty and his return will have an impact on the team chemistry.
Offensively, Iowa State has been good virtually across the board. They rank 11th nationally in 2-point percentage, and they shoot a decent percentage from three (35 percent) while taking over 40 percent of their attempts from deep. They currently have three guys at over 40 percent, and a fourth (Wigginton) who shot over 40 percent last season. For a team that will give up more than the occasional open three, it could spell doom for Kansas.
Unlike a lot of teams Kansas will play this season, Iowa State doesn’t have anyone you can leave alone or not worry about on that end of the floor. That means the Jayhawks will have to play stout one-on-one defense and not help off of shooters. The former has a good chance of happening. The latter, not so much.
Defensively, Iowa State is one of the stingiest teams in terms of allowing opponents to get to the rim. Unfortunately for them, it is because they give up tons of open threes. Somehow, opponents have made fewer than 32 percent of their threes against the Cyclones, so I would expect their defensive numbers to get worse as the season goes along. This probably won’t be the game, however. Lagerald Vick and Devon Dotson should have the green light to let it fly from three, and this might be an opportunity for Charlie Moore and Quentin Grimes to do so as well, but I think Kansas will focus on getting the ball to Udoka Azubuike.
While the Cyclones have a lot of length on the wing, they don’t have a lot of depth inside. Cameron Lard is a good defender, but extremely foul prone. If Kansas can get him to the bench, it should be a feast inside for both Azubuike and Dedric Lawson.
Players to Watch
Tyrese Haliburton, 6-5 freshman guard
Haliburton has maybe the weirdest statistical line in the conference. He’s playing in almost 90 percent of the team’s minutes, but has a usage rate just barely over 10 percent. He’s attempted only 23 twos all season, which is seven more than Dedric Lawson attempted in the first game of the season. As you might expect, he is hyper efficient. 17 of those attempts were at the rim, and he’s shooting 78 percent from two overall and 45 percent from three. He’s also a good passer and perimeter defender.
Marial Shayok, 6-6 senior wing
The transfer from Virginia has adapted extremely well to Iowa State’s more free-wheeling offense. He’s leading the team in usage (although that will likely change with Wigginton back), and shooting almost 60 percent on twos. Shayok is probably the team’s most versatile defender as well, although he probably doesn’t have the size to be able to switch onto Lawson.
Lindell Wigginton, 6-2 sophomore guard
Who knows how much Wigginton will play in this one (although he played 30 minutes against Oklahoma State, so a lot of playing time is a safe bet), but regardless of how much, he will be dangerous. Wigginton shot over 40 percent from three last year, and early returns are that he’s upped his efficiency inside the arc as well. He wasn’t a great passer last season, but with experience that should come as well. Devon Dotson will likely be assigned to Wigginton, and his on-ball defense will be a huge key Saturday.
I am impressed with the amount of talent Iowa State has on its team, especially without relying on a ton of major recruits. Their defense should regress over the course of conference play, but the offense, already maybe the best in the league, could get even better with the return of Wigginton.
Kansas played one of its best games of the season on Wednesday against Oklahoma, but with the number of shooters Iowa State has I think they’ll get too hot for the Jayhawks to keep up. If Kansas gets Lard in foul trouble, they might be able to steal one, but I think Iowa State has a bit too much firepower at home. I’ll take Iowa State to win 83-74.