All Eyes on Matt Thomas As Iowa State Begins Big 12 Title Run

As Iowa State begins its gauntlet run into the Big 12 Championship opener, all eyes will be on Matt Thomas. The Iowa State junior might very well be the key to making it past the postseason opener.

KANSAS CITY, MO. — Stopping Buddy Hield is something of a false hope, and Iowa State has no belief that such a task is all that fathomable. Rather, the Cyclones will enter their third matchup against the vaunted sharpshooter with much more reasonable expectations.

Stop Hield? No way. Contain him? Now there’s an idea. 

“There’s only so good of a job I think you can do on him,” Iowa State coach Steve Prohm said. “You’re not going to shut him down. You’ve just got to make every shot contested, make him work for every shot, and we’ve done that.”

Iowa State’s best hope Thursday: “Contain and contest,” Prohm said.

The two-time Big 12 Player of the Year, Hield enters the postseason sitting atop the conference and ranked second nationally averaging 25.1 points per game. He has scored 20-plus in 22 of 30 games, including at least 30 points nine times, the same total as every other player in the Big 12 combined.

So there is no notion that Hield can be stopped. Yet the game plan to containing the All-American and likely National Player of the Year is no exact science either.

“You just have to do a good job limiting his touches, first off,” said Prohm, only beginning the list. “Great job in ball-screen defensive coverage, really try to take him off the 3-point line and then contain the dribble and make him shoot every shot contested. Nothing in transition and then nothing off kick-out 3s.”

“That’s the biggest thing,” Prohm said, finally, after 18 seconds.

Finally, he laughed, realizing he had just rapidly read off a list of seven key items not to stop Hield, but simply to contain him.

“When you’re one of the top two or three players in the country, you’ve got a long checklist of things you have to do,” Prohm said. “He’s terrific.”

That long checklist will be the homework and ultimately the test for Matt Thomas, who has come a long way since playing 2-3 zone at Onalaska (Wisc.). Thomas has worked on his footwork and lateral speed, and both have led to improvement during his breakthrough junior season, including his second-half shutdown of Iowa’s Jarrod Uthoff, who scored 30 first-half points before Thomas held him to two in the second half of a comeback win.

The Hield results are in the numbers. 

In 16 games against the rest of the Big 12 this season, Hield has shot 48 percent. In two games against Iowa State, with Thomas following him in every direction, Hield has shot 39 percent (18-of-46). Hield, of course, still managed 23 and 27 points against the Cyclones, but needed 23 shots in both instances to do so.

“Buddy is so good,” Thomas said. “He can score in so many ways. You just kind of have to limit his touches, make everything tough for him and just do your best to contain him. I don’t think there’s any secret to trying to stop him.”

When Iowa State begins its run at a third consecutive Big 12 title — a gauntlet that would presumably go through the tournament’s 1-, 2- and 3-seeded teams — it will thus focus its efforts on slowing Hield rather than stopping him.

Even that effort is easier said than done. 

“Matt has done the best job, I feel like, of anybody in the Big 12 guarding him,” said Naz Mitrou-Long, who was once the go-to defender on Hield and who imitated him in recent practices leading up to Thursday night's showdown. “It’s definitely just sitting down, locking up and believing in himself.”

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