When Monté Morris looks at Kansas State's Marcus Foster, he sees a similar breed:
A precocious point guard — a freshman — who's surprised just about everyone, has clenched a critical role on his will-be-dancing team and figures to stay around for a couple more years.
The Big 12 has plenty of those types. Jordan Woodard of Oklahoma and Isaiah Taylor of Texas start for their top-4 Big 12 teams while Kansas' Frank Mason hasn't picked up big minutes in his first season but will very likely be a factor down the road.
Woodard and Taylor will square off this weekend in Norman while Morris and Foster do battle (7 p.m., ESPNU) at Kansas State's Bramlage Coliseum, "The Octagon of Doom," one of two away games the Cyclones hope to steal with the regular season winding down.
In the Jan. 25 matchup this season, Iowa State beat Kansas State, 81-75, behind 20 points from Melvin Ejim. Morris had his usual modest scoring line (seven points) with five assists to an unusually-high two turnovers. Foster starred for the Wildcats, pouring in 20 points on 3-for-8 shooting from the perimeter, with three assists, but turned the ball over five times.
Morris and Foster are friendly, having met years back at a sophomore camp the summer before 10th grade.
"He texted me after the game and said, 'Congratulations, but we need to make it tougher for you guys,'" Morris said Thursday.
Foster and the Wildcats look return the favor this weekend at Bramlage, where they've rolled through conference play undefeated.
"They have a great atmosphere and a tough student section," said senior Melvin Ejim, who has a 1-2 record at Bramlage. "Playing on the road just in general is tough. Those guys have been playing well this year. Any road game in the arena is pretty tough this year."
If Morris comes out like he did Wednesday against West Virginia, the Cyclones will at least have a steadying hand in a tough environment. Morris' 12 assists were a freshman record for Iowa State, made more impressive by a goose egg in the turnover margin. The 6-foot-2 Flint, Mich., product has started the last eight game for the Cyclones, technically at the two-guard, but often finds himself running the offense while DeAndre Kane posts up smaller guards.
In conference play, Morris has 67 assists to eight turnovers. If his season's assist-to-turnover mark of 5.9 holds up, it'll break an NCAA record.
Things that I'm doing for a freshman are big-time," Morris admitted. "I've always been a low-turnover guy but doing it at this level is big."
Akin to a quarterback riding an interception-less streak, Morris could be tempted to avoid the big play — the lob to Ejim, the tight feed to Georges Niang. But that's not the essence of his game.
"He makes great plays, spectacular plays, makes hard plays look easy," Fred Hoiberg said of Morris. "He's out there throwing lobs and gets guys rolling to the basket with a pocket pass. Those aren't easy plays to make but he's got such great poise and such good pace and that's what's getting it done for him right now."
Said Morris, who averaged 8.8 assists his senior year at Beecher High: "I just trust my instincts. Half the time if I'm throwing a pass, something is there. I'm not just throwing it, trying to make a play. I usually see plays before they happen so if I'm running and I see a guy in my peripheral, I know I can make a move to get my defender away from who I'm going to pass it to. It's all just timing and being around the game and knowing what you can and can't do."
The lob game, especially with Ejim, is an easy assist for the point guard and an easy two points for the forward.
"He just tells me to put it up anywhere and he'll just grab it, dunk it, finish it," Morris said. "He just likes scoring the ball, I like getting him open spots and putting it places he can finish around the rim."
There are more pressing concerns for the Cyclones — Saturday, for one, Tuesday at Baylor, for another, next week vs. Oklahoma State, too — than preseason accolades for the 2014-15 season, but one can look at Morris' stats and wonder if the All-Conference is where he's headed as a sophomore.
Morris' offensive rating, per kenpom.com, of 123 is No. 86 nationally and his turnover rate is No. 80. As far as more traditional stats go, Morris has room to improve on his three-point percentage (31.5) and two-point percentage of 47.4, but his his 6.3 points per game is just right for a team that has an established scoring trifecta.
Ask Morris about future point guard battles to come and all he can do is smile.
"I know it's gonna be a big-time atmosphere all of these four years," Morris said. "It's gonna be a lot of player comparisons going into next year and junior and senior year. We've got a lot of point guards to be looking forward to playing against, so why not take it head on? K-State's also got Jevon Thomas, Taylor at Texas. I'll still have to go against Frank Mason and (Kansas') Naadir Tharpe next year, and (West Virginia's Juwan) Staten.
"This league has some great point guards and I'm glad I chose to play in the Big 12."
Player to Watch
Senior guard Will Spradling is in a rut, shooting 7-for-23 from three-point range the last four games. Jan. 25 against Iowa State, Spradling put on a clinic, drilling 66 percent of his perimeter shots.
In seven career games against the Cyclones, Spradling has a 48.6 three-point percentage. In two 2011 wins, Spradling shot 4-for-8 and 3-for-6, respectively.
If Kane sticks K-State's the bigger-bodied Marcus Foster, the assignment to slow Spradling could go to Morris.
Trend to Track
Iowa State's No. 2 most frequent starting lineup the last five games?
It doesn't include Melvin Ejim.
The senior forward all season has been beset by foul trouble, whistled for over four per 40 minutes. But it's been really bad recently, Ejim picking up four fouls in each of his last four games. He's fouled out three times this season and two of those were Cyclones losses.
That's not to say the fifth foul — the DQ of Ejim — is what caused the Cyclones to lose two of three (Texas and home vs Kansas), but rather the stress of Ejim in foul trouble. Either he's on the bench in that case or he's on the floor but playing with hesitation.
Probable Starting Lineups (ht, yr, ppg, rpg, FG %)
No. 15 ISU (22-5, 10-5)
Kansas State (19-9, 9-6)
Note: Shane Southwell hasn't started the last four games with a foot injury but has played, albeit poorly.
*denotes assists per game.