AMES — When ultraefficient and cool-beyond-his-years freshman point guard Monte Morris shared an AAU team backcourt with Michigan’s Derrick Walton, rest didn’t come often if at all.
It was breather-free basketball, chugging through the Upper Midwest to Las Vegas and California.
“The biggest stages,” Morris, who turned 18 in June, said.
They keep getting bigger for Iowa State’s 6-foot-2, 170-pound catalyst, who continues his journey from role player to key contributor in today’s 3 p.m. Big 12 matchup with Oklahoma at Hilton Coliseum.
Will Morris finally get his first start after playing a career-high 25 minutes in Wednesday’s 92-81 loss at seventh-ranked Kansas?
“We’ll see,” he said.
Yes, we will — at tip-off.
“He’s just been such a spark of us off the bench,” said Cyclones Coach Fred Hoiberg, whose team (15-4, 3-4) has lost four of its past five — three of them on the road. “I guess that’s the reason I’ve been having him in that role, but we’ll evaluate that.”
Regardless of whether he starts, Morris’s nearly mid-conference season report card features several gold stars. His assist-to-turnover ratio is a glowing 6.5 to 1 in conference play. He’s played turnover-free basketball in nine of the past 10 games while compiling 14 steals in that span.
ISU runs smoother, cleaner and peppier when he’s on the floor, which is why his minutes continue to grow.
“Our tempo picks up,” Hoiberg said. “He obviously takes great care of the basketball and he makes the right plays defensively. ... Monte, more often than not, is in there at the end of the game.”
Nothing fuels pace like rebounding, though — and the Cyclones were exposed on the glass in the last game against the Sooners, who built a 22-2 advantage in second-chance points en route to an 87-82 win at Norman.
Ryan Spangler, the Big 12’s leading rebounder, grabbed 15 rebounds that day and must be pushed from the paint if ISU is to hang in as balls bounce from the rim.
“Cut outs, cut outs, cut outs,” Morris said.
“You have to put a body on (Spangler),” he said. “I think it really is as simple as that.”
Before the bodying-up occurs, better starts must emerge. The Cyclones fell behind by 16 points in the first half at Kansas and then allowed an 11-0 run early in the second half.
ISU came back both times, but the sluggish starts are wearing on the team — especially since there seems to be no explanation for them.
“We’ve been fighting from behind pretty much the whole season,” said freshman shooting guard Matt Thomas, who has hit 6 of his last 12 3-pointers. “We need to start halves better and it starts (today).”
But will Morris start? Or maybe Thomas again?“I feel like if I started both halves I could probably give a better boost,” Morris said while not necessarily lobbying for a first-five slot. “We’ve been coming out flat. I don’t know why. ... It seems like when I’m in, everybody plays a little bit faster.”