Iowa State freshman guard Jaden Walker drives the ball to the basket in the second half against West Virginia on Tuesday, Feb. 2, 2021, at Hilton Coliseum in Ames, Iowa.
AMES — Steve Prohm swore his team is going to break through.
Solomon Young noted the little things and how flipping just a few more of them could lead to flipping Iowa State’s results in the win-loss column.
Somehow, just a few days after losing by nearly 40 points with a depleted roster due to COVID-19 protocol, but mere moments after a hard-fought, knockdown drag-out fight of a 76-72 loss to No. 21 West Virginia, both of their arguments held merit.
The team we saw Iowa State put on the floor Tuesday night looked like one that could breakthrough. Not breakthrough in the sense of making any sort of postseason run, but shoot, even the idea of winning a game feels like a breakthrough after how the team’s previous three performances went.
The team we saw Iowa State put on the floor Tuesday night needed just a few little things to flip their way in order to leave with a victory. One or two foul calls here, a couple of missed open shots there.
Even just one weird offensive possession with 15 seconds left on the clock going differently could have flipped the result of this game.
On this night, those things did not happen.
But for the first time since before the team’s loss to Texas Tech on Jan. 9, shortly before they were forced to pause all activities for more than two weeks due to COVID-19 healthy and safety protocols, it feels like they could.
“We’re gonna break through, man,” Prohm said. “We’ve gotta stay at it. We’ve gotta stay at it and we’re gonna break through because I thought they responded tonight.”
This was probably Iowa State’s most complete effort since the team’s first loss to West Virginia… all the way back on Dec. 18 — or one day before the Cyclone football team played for the Big 12 title in Dallas.
The Cyclones lost by five on that night in Morgantown, but looked to be just a few small things flipping their way from turning some sort of corner.
One tough month and a half later, they seem to be back in that spot — or at least closer to it.
Tyler Harris knocked down five 3-pointers to score 15 points. Rasir Bolton fought off foul trouble to add 15 points of his own. Solomon Young reached the 15 point mark despite it being his first game in more than three weeks and only a few days after he returned to basketball action at all since he was among those wrapped up in Iowa State’s COVID-19 pause even once the program resumed activities.
“We were really saying, ‘February on, let’s play the right way.’ Though, we lost, thought that was a whole different basketball team out there tonight,” Prohm said. “Forgetting what lies in the past and looking forward to the future. That that’s our focus.”
Looking forward to the future suddenly looks a little bit brighter when you consider the impact made by freshman guard Jaden Walker in this game.
The long and rangy point guard scored six points, grabbed six rebounds and dished six assists. Sure, he also had six turnovers, but it would be difficult to expect much else from a true freshman point guard playing his first real extended minutes as the team’s primary ball-handler.
Is the kid Monte Morris? I mean, no, but heck, he gave the team a helluva spark and forces your mind to wander as you look at the gauntlet of a schedule this team has in February.
“I thought there’s a lot of intangible things that you’ll see that he did,” Prohm said. “I thought he had great activity. He had six rebounds, but that’s because he’s six-foot-five and long. Along with those six turnovers now, he had six assists. Now, we’ve got to take the next step, keep the rebounds, keep the assists and talk to him and show tape on getting those turnovers down.”
Iowa State outscored West Virginia 15-6 during Walker’s run as the lead guard. That run came even without Bolton, the team’s usual primary ball-handler, on the floor.
Now, the idea of playing without Bolton on the floor isn’t quite as crazy as it might have seemed going into Tuesday. Not only did Bolton basically have to play 40 minutes for the Cyclones’ offense to operate, he had to play 40 minutes at the point guard spot while also be the team’s primary scorer and do it while basically creating everything for himself.
Walker emerging gives Prohm the option to let Bolton rest for stretches or even slide him over to the off-ball guard spot where he is probably a more natural fit and allow Walker, who is not a natural scorer, set up everyone else.
“I guess that’d take a lot of pressure off of (Bolton),” Walker said. “Because we put a lot of pressure on him and he runs the point majority of the game. Tonight, he was able to play off the ball sometimes.”
How close Iowa State was in this game can be exemplified by the way this Cyclones’ final real offensive possession transpired.
Bolton got a screen from Walker at the top of the key out of a four-low action the Cyclones had used several times during the game (and have used for several years). Young was doing his best to seal his defender, create an open driving lane for Bolton to reach the hoop or, if nothing else, dump down to Solo for an easy layup.
Instead, Bolton collided with the defender. None of the men wearing stripes blew their whistles even though it was a play that felt like it had to be something.
Block, charge… ahem… blarge, offensive foul on Young, doesn’t matter. Just… something.
But, the whistle never blew. West Virginia corralled the ball, hit two free throws and the game was essentially over.
Those few seconds go a little bit differently in Iowa State’s direction and the Cyclones could have finally gotten that breakthrough. They could have completely reversed course from where they appeared to be heading Saturday evening.
“I just needed to get these guys over the hump tonight,” Prohm said. “I just needed to get them over the hump because they did some really good things — and that’s what sucks.”
Yep, it does.
They looked like a different team on Tuesday, though — and, for now, that’s worth feeling a little bit better about. The next few weeks will show us what this night against West Virginia really meant.
The weeks following that first loss to the Mountaineers turned into a nightmare.
We will see how those little things come together the second time around.
Whether or not we can rest easy about the future of Iowa State basketball likely depends on them.