As if coming off a two week stretch with three losses to show for it — two of which came to both the best and one of the worst teams the Big 12 has to offer — wasn't challenging enough for the Cyclones, they will hit the road once again for a matchup with the No. 13 West Virginia Mountaineers.
The No. 13 Mountaineers are not in the same spot they found themselves in just a season ago, sitting 1-7 in Big 12 at this time. Now the Mountaineers sit as a top-15 team and hold the same Big 12 record through eight games (5-3) that the Cyclones held just a season ago.
But it's not just the record that has changed for West Virginia and Coach Steve Prohm and his team knows it.
Prohm said he has seen the return of what has made West Virginia a consistent threat in the conference and the NCAA tournament over the last decade: defense and toughness around the glass.
Prohm said this year's West Virginia team has returned to playing its press defense, suffocating offenses and creating turnovers to make its offense as efficient as possible. Defending the boards and being willing to attack the press that West Virginia throws out will be the key for Prohm and his team.
“You gotta attack all 40 minutes, you have to make play after play on the offensive end and on the defensive end you gotta be physical at every position,” Prohm said.
After West Virginia finished 4-14 in conference play and 15-21 overall last season, Prohm said he has seen how much effort and commitment Bob Huggins — the coach of the Mountaineers since 2007 — has put into this year's season in hopes of making it a rebound from last season.
“You could tell [Bob] Huggins was determined to get his team back right after obviously last year’s season," Prohm said.
Iowa State brought a new starting lineup to Austin, Texas, on Sunday with freshman guard Tre Jackson taking the place of Prentiss Nixon. Jackson made his mark in his first career start on the offensive end, knocking down all three of his three point attempts.
Jackson's success from distance may have been a spark the Cyclones counted on against Texas, but against the Mountaineers, Prohm said his message to his freshman is to stay relaxed and not look to make the big-play every possession.
With the press collapsing in on each player on the floor, taking away the open space Jackson might need to connect on his threes, Prohm said it will be vital for him to look to make the simple plays, rather than give West Virginia exactly what it wants.
Prohm related Jackson's would-be approach to how a baseball player should approach their individual at-bat, making sure the right play is made, not looking to hit big plays every time.
"You just really talk to him about slowing down, hitting singles; don't try and hit doubles, don't try and hit a triple, don't try and hit a home run, you just hit singles against West Virginia and make simple plays,” Prohm said.
Jackson has never played — much less started — a game against West Virginia in Morgantown, making his decision making and playmaking a focal point for how the Cyclones will fair in Wednesday's matchup.
Jackson hasn't had trouble lighting it up from three point range, shooting 11-25 (44%) in Big 12 play, but said ahead of his first matchup with the Mountaineers that he and his teammates will just do what they do.
The reputation West Virginia holds and has held for many years hasn't escaped Jackson and he expects to face a physical team with plenty of size to bout.
“I’m anticipating them to be a real physical team, we just gotta go out there and do what we gotta do in order to win,” Jackson said.
Jackson's teammate George Conditt has also had very limited experience playing West Virginia, getting a combined total of 16 minutes against them last season. Conditt only played four minutes the first time around, hitting both of his free throw attempts, ending his night with two points and one rebound.
In the second meeting, Conditt had much more of an impact in his 12 minutes of playing time, finishing with four points, seven rebounds and two blocks.
Conditt on the struggles Iowa State has been through recently: “That’s why we got practice today, that’s why it’s gonna be a very hard and intense practice, I don’t care if they wanna slow practice down, I’m picking it up, I know that much, Solomon is in trouble today.”— Matt Belinson (@BelinsonMatt) February 3, 2020
Conditt was asked to describe what playing West Virginia will be like to a young freshman like Jackson and said that the Mountaineers will bring pressure nonstop and will make it tough to find a rhythm on offense.
“They're gonna pressure you every inch of the court, they are going to try and deny you the ball, try and deny all the right actions," Conditt said. “[...] They are a very tough team, if we thought Baylor was tough, then we got a heck of a week this week, just gotta go in there and challenge ourselves."