Rebounding has been a problem so far this season for Iowa State.
And Saturday afternoon against undermanned Liberty it was a problem again, with the exception of a second stretch when the Cyclones grabbed 14 out of 16 on the boards. That sparked a 16-0 scoring run, and that scoring run sparked a 76-58 over the Flames that ran ISU's record to a perfect 5-0.
Wayne Morgan is now the first coach in school history to start his career in Ames with five consecutive wins. Morgan says that distinction is nice and all, but considering the caliber of competition it's come against he'd prefer to wait and evaluate just how good his team really is until a grueling two-week stretch that begins with a road game at Drake on December 20th.
The Cyclones haven't won at the Knapp Center since 1995, and it's not like the Bulldogs have played a lot of good basketball recently. After that, ISU hosts Xavier before a two-game road trip at Virginia and San Diego State.
"The upcoming games are going to show us how much we need to improve to get ready for conference play," Morgan said.
"We were extremely lucky to land two point guards of that caliber," Morgan said.
Blalock was the floor general, finishing with five assists to just two turnovers and three steals. He now has a 23-8 assist-to-turnover ratio this season. Stinson was unstoppable when he wanted to be against Liberty, flashing a repertoire of open court moves combined with the occasional outside shot to go along with his ability to take it to the basket. He finished with team-high 17 points.
"Both of those freshmen were terrific," Morgan pointed out.
Beyond the precocious newcomers, Jared Homan had a breakout game with 15 points and four blocked shots. He spent much of the afternoon battling with Liberty's Jason Sarchet, a native of Newell-Fonda. The two thick-bodied Iowa men exchanged elbows and several verbal pleasantries throughout, which prompted the crowd of 8,037 cardinal-and-gold fans to greet his name with resounding boos each time it came over the public address system.
"We were just catching up some things like the news and the weather," Homan said, jokingly. "The referees let us play and we took advantage of that."
However, not all the news was good.
Yet again the Cyclones were out-rebounded by an undersized opponent. The Flames held a 46-43 edge in that key statistic, although ISU did have a slim advantage before garbage time substituting began. Still, the Cyclones will have a tough time competing in the rugged Big 12 if they continue to surrender 21 offensive rebounds per game. Watching from press row, it looked as if ISU was not fundamentally sound on the block-out, especially on the long rebounds.
"We've got to be more physical," Homan said. "A lot of those offensive rebounds come against our zone defense, and we need to practice that more."
Nonetheless, this is clearly the most athletic team I have seen in my four years covering the Cyclones in person. Blalock and Stinson have such a high basketball I.Q. that you really don't worry about their poor decisions at times trying to make highlight plays because you get the feeling they're just playing with the opponent.
Staple and George each played double-digit minutes and look to be making their way back from injury, providing more depth in the post. Marcus Jefferson contributes as a slasher and doesn't force the action, waiting for his opportunities in the flow of the offense. Then there's Jake Sullivan, at home on the wing, the only ISU player to ever make 200 three-pointers in a career.
I'm leaning towards thinking the Cyclones are going to sneak up on some teams this year, and maybe even sneak up on the NCAA Tournament if they can reverse that ugly current 17-game conference road losing streak.
"Every time you see us we're a little bit better," Morgan said.