AMES — As the pre-game cheers rose up for mighty Kansas in Friday’s Big 12 Tournament semifinal, Iowa State freshman Monte Morris smiled and nodded in the warm-up line.
Rock, chalk, smirk?
Sort-of — but not in a disrespectful way.
“That’s just me,” the unusually poised 18-year-old said after the momentum-building 94-83 win. “Even back in high school if a team beat me twice, I was out there smiling, because they’re going to take you for granted. We just knew if we came out with a little more fire we’d be successful at the end.”
Morris enters Friday’s 8:50 p.m. second-round NCAA Tournament East Regional matchup between the third-seeded Cyclones (26-7) and 14-seed North Carolina Central at San Antonio intent on showcasing his unique blend of fire and ice on the national stage.
There’s nothing “little” about either one of those elements in his game, either — as proven by the fact his assist-to-turnover ratio of 5.4-to-1 is on pace to break the NCAA single-season mark in that regard.
And Morris dished out 14 assists to three turnovers in the sweep to the conference tournament title, which added another layer of maturity for the next challenge.
“If you just go straight into the NCAA Tournament it’s tough,” said ISU Coach Fred Hoiberg. “You’re nervous, so that first step leading into the tournament will help (freshmen).”
But that virtually mistake-free basketball Morris tends to play, whatever the staging ground?
That’s not all about him.
Paging do-everything, senior transfer DeAndre Kane …
“Early on, things people didn’t see was him pushing me every day; him stripping me in practice,” Morris said. “Me having, what, five turnovers in practice? Him pushing me where I can’t score and I’m uncomfortable out there and him posting me up. People didn’t see that, you know what I mean? They just thought it was all myself and my poise, but he helped me a lot. If I ever got the chance to give thanks to anybody, it would be DeAndre, because he pushed me. He put me in a position and built me up the right way. And everybody telling me I keep getting better? I give it all to him.”
So does North Carolina Central Coach LeVelle Moton, who said in a Tuesday conference call that talking about ISU makes his stomach hurt.
“That’s how good they are,” said Moton, whose MEAC champion Eagles (28-5) are on a 20-game win streak. “I couldn’t sleep (Monday) night. I woke up in the middle of the night thinking about DeAndre Kane — and that’s reality. … They just present so many different matchup nightmares across the board.”
Kane, Georges Niang, Melvin Ejim and Dustin Hogue conjure said bad dreams.
Morris deftly provides the fodder — thanks to Kane’s pokes, prods and punishment in practice.
Those hard knocks brought Morris, roughly six years Kane’s junior, up to peer level.
And both are smiling now.“Sometimes he tells me, ‘I’m riding with you,’” Morris said. “And I tell him, ‘I’m riding with you. You’ve got the keys to the car right now. When you leave, maybe you can hand me the keys, but I’m in the passenger seat riding with you. Whatever you see, I’m down to do.’ That’s how I’m approaching it.”