Iowa State would really have liked to play pre-Jan. 8 Kansas.
Pre-Jan. 8 Kansas was still a very good team, loaded with the same talent and coached by Bill Self, but it was a Jayhawks squad that was vulnerable and totally beatable, as four opposing teams had already proven.
When the Jayhawks (11-4) make their customary run through March, we might point to Jan. 8 as the watershed moment, when they beat Oklahoma on the road — not easy to do, huh? — and followed that up days later with a stomping of rival Kansas State at Phog Allen, 86-60.
All of a sudden, Kansas doesn't look like an underachiever. In fact, it's a terrifying matchup, what with Andrew Wiggins beginning to heat up and climb toward his collegiate ceiling and Wayne Selden Jr. making a killing from downtown — 8-for-13 the last two games — and Joel Embiid maintaining his reputation as a fearsome paint defender.
No. 18 Kansas rolls into Hilton Coliseum tonight, aiming to shoot the No. 9 Cyclones (14-1) down a little more from the stratosphere.
Four days ago, Iowa State was a handful of undefeated teams and a budding media darling with point guard DeAndre Kane a burgeoning star. One game later, a road loss to the Sooners, and nobody's even sure of Kane's status for Big Monday.
Whether Kane's left ankle cooperates with his rehabilitation efforts in the long hours before Monday's 8 p.m. tip is the big question mark — no truth to the rumor students are selling selling rabbit's foot over at Campustown. If he's good to go, the Cyclones will have a big advantage. Kane will have no problem bullying 5-foot-11, 170-pound KU point guard Naadir Tharpe in happenstance matchups in transition, and his size and length would help the Cyclones with their defensive rotations on the perimeter.
Kane's ability to knife into the lane and create easy looks would be an antidote against Kansas' defense, No. 33 in adjusted efficiency, and its army of shot-blockers — the Jayhawks have a team block percentage of 16 and Embiid sends away 11.6 percent of the attempts taken when he's in the game.
As his shot charts from the last two games prove, Kane's an incredibly efficient scorer around the rim.
If Kane's out, freshman Monté Morris probably gets the start at point guard. As long as Melvin Ejim and Georges Niang remain out of foul trouble, Iowa State has a fine chance against the Jayhawks.
The Cyclones, however, will need Matt Thomas to find some consistency with his shot and play with more confidence than as of late, and a vintage Naz Long-UNC Wilmington performance would be a boon. If 8-for-11 from distance and 26 points is asking too much, Fred Hoiberg would settle for one of Long's recent outings against Baylor or Oklahoma; 2-for-5 from three-point range and 3-for-7, respectively.
The Unusual Suspects
There are holdovers in Tharpe and Perry Ellis, but like many of college basketball's bluebloods, Kansas rolls out a new wave of shiny new names each season.
Self's 2013 haul included three five-star players, Wiggins, Embiid and Selden Jr., the first time since 2005 Kansas signed so many.
Then, in tiny script on the marquee below the three-headed monster: Frank Mason (7.1 points, 2.7 assists per game) and Conner Frankamp (two three-pointers the last two games), along with graduate transfer Tarik Black, from Memphis, a strong defensive post presence.
PG: Naadir Tharpe
Tharpe has seen his role progress in three seasons in Lawrence, from little-used freshman to serious minutes-eater. He has a tremendous assist rate of 31.1 percent, per kenpom.com, and only takes 16 percent of his team's shots when he's on the floor.
Tharpe is hitting 37.5 percent of three-point tries and 48.8 percent of two-point looks, suggesting he's taking, and missing, a good amount of long jumpers inside the arc. Turnovers have been a problem: Three vs. Villanova and Florida, four vs. New Mexico, five vs. Toledo.
Below is his shot chart against Kansas State, per CBS Sports (while the AllCyclones.com chart uses a red dot to denote a make and green "X" for a miss, CBS uses green for make and red for miss).
SG: Wayne Selden Jr.
The most unsung of KU's three big-time freshmen, Selden is a 6-foot-5 wing who's starting to find his shot, dropping 24 points against OU and 20 against Kansas State. His cumulative three-point percentage of 42.6 is very good, while both his effective field goal and true shooting percentage are among the top 450 nationally.
Overall, Selden's advanced statistics are similar to Eric Bledsoe's freshman year at Kentucky and Nolan Smith's 2008 year at Duke, which falls in line with the Selden narrative: His name's not up in lights, but don't you dare forget about him.
SF: Andrew Wiggins
There is nothing wrong with Wiggins, the 6-foot-8 freak whose YouTube highlights went viral from Canada to Connecticut; when he chose Kansas, it was easily the story of the day on ESPN, analysts wondering if he was the best prospect since LeBron James.
Despite a virtuoso 22-point performance against Duke and Jabari Parker in November, much of the Wiggins discussion has had a tinged tone of disappointment, as if the country collectively expected routine 30-point, 8-rebound nights.
Wiggins is beginning to play with more authority. Against the Wildcats on Saturday, he was drilling three-pointers with defenders in his face. His defense all season has more than passed the eye test. He's drawing 5.6 fouls per 40 minutes. As far as an NBA future, the sky's the limit for the presumable top 3 pick.
In terms of a collegiate ceiling, Wiggins is about ready to bump his head against it, although said head sadly is no longer adorned with a Questlove afro.
Here is Wiggins' efficient shot chart from Kansas State.
PF: Perry Ellis
Ellis is a smart player, a good screen-setter and capable ball-handler at the top of the key. He's in the top 150 in the following kenpom stats: offensive rating, effective field goal percentage and true shooting percentage, while coming in at No. 167 in turnover rate.
The 6-foot-8 Ellis gobbles up 17.4 and 9.2 percent of available defensive and offensive rebounds, respectively, but the most impressive stat of all for the sophomore might be his smart defensive play. Ellis is whistled for 2.5 fouls per 40 minutes, a rate Georges Niang would pay a king's ransom for.
C: Joel Embiid
Apologies to Bill Simmons, but Embiid is not 7-foot-2, though he may play like it. In reality, Embiid is merely a 7-footer with elastic arms and extraterrestrial athleticism. Per game, the native of Cameroon averages 10.5 points, 7.3 rebounds and 2.4 blocks. Before getting ejected for a Flagrant 2 against KSU, Embiid tallied 11 points, including a three-pointer, grabbed nine boards and swatted two shots.
Embiid is money around the basket in all facets. For starters, there's his two-point shooting percentage of 67.9. He grabs 25.9 percent of available defensive rebounds, No. 34 nationally, and 13.1 percent of the offensive type. Few are better as a rim protector than Embiid, as he blocks 11.6 percent of shots taken while he's on the floor, No. 25 nationally.
His weakness so far has been propensity for fouling, being called for 6.7 per 40 minutes. He returns the favor on the other end, at least, drawing six per 40 minutes. If Embiid's going to get into foul trouble, he's taking you with him.
Play to Watch
There are a few things Iowa State needs to do very well to win Monday — don't sleep on defending the Ellis-to-Embiid high-low game — but matching the athleticism and ability of Wiggins and Embiid in a two-man vacuum might be priority No. 1.
In this cut-up from Kansas' win over Kansas State, Ellis sets a high screen for Wiggins, who splits two defenders and is off to the races, flanked by three-point shooters settling in on either side.
Wiggins can dish to either of them, but the best option is something around the rim, and that's attained in two ways: Either he shoots it or Embiid does. In this frame, Wiggins makes a nice spin move to lead to a layup, but had the helpless Wildcat defender moved up a little bit more to the action, Wiggins could have slipped a pass to Embiid, who's hovering at the block and along the baseline.
How do the Cyclones play it? Zone, maybe, but the Jayhawks are a good team from downtown, hitting 33.5 percent. It's one of the many dilemmas facing Hoiberg & Co. Monday night. Then again, with Ejim and Niang, and maybe Kane, Bill Self has plenty to worry about, too.