Exactly one week ago, in exactly the same building, 40 minutes of upset-worthy basketball waged against the nation's top team was at sudden risk. Oklahoma guard and national player of the year front-runner Buddy Hield had come roaring back in the closing minutes of the game, slicing through Iowa State's once-widening lead with an unstoppable barrage of contested 3s. Hilton Coliseum had seen what Hield had done to Kansas at Allen Fieldhouse. It groaned under the stress and tightened at every shot until things couldn't possibly get tighter.
Tie game. Twenty-seven seconds to play. The biggest win of Iowa State's season -- and one of the biggest in program history, its first upset of a No. 1 team since 1957 -- on the line.
And, no, Georges Niang didn't take the shot.
That was Monte Morris, drilling the go-ahead jumper with 24 seconds to play. Morris then secured the key defensive rebound 15 seconds later. Morris then absorbed a foul, walked back down the court, and coolly sealed the game at the free throw line, finishing with 21 points on 8-for-11 shooting and seven rebounds to go along with three assists.
Exactly one week later in the same building, Morris would again be the key difference in yet another huge home win for the Cyclones: Monday's 85-72 victory over No. 4 Kansas.
Another raucous Big Monday in Hilton meant another massive win for Iowa State over a Big 12 contender, a second straight triumph over an elite conference foe. For Morris -- who finished with 21 points, nine assists and four rebounds -- it meant another display of his own unique talents, an affirmation of his longstanding role in ISU's scoring machine, and another impressive bid for consideration among the nation's very best point guards.
Morris rarely gets that consideration. Even within the context of his own team, Morris is usually overshadowed by Niang. This is understandable: Niang is the four-year star who has played big minutes for the Cyclones since his arrival on campus. In many ways, he is the walking personification of the early-screen, primary-break, floor-spreading, shot-chucking, new-age offensive system former coach Fred Hoiberg established at the school five years ago. Niang is among the nation's most versatile players. He is 6-foot-7, possessed with unimpressive athleticism and old-man herk and jerk, and yet his combination of passing, ballhandling, spacing and understanding are unrivaled in the sport. If the modern Iowa State Cyclones had a spirit animal, that animal would be Georges Niang, who is currently having his best season yet.
Yet while Niang has been embarrassing defenders with step-through up-and-unders and blowing kisses to Iowa's student section, Morris has been putting together one of the most impressive careers any guard has had in recent college hoops history.
Entering Monday night, Morris' career assist-to-turnover ratio stood at 4.63. That is the nation's best among active players, but stating that fact doesn't quite sum it up. Why? Because No. 2 on that list, Pitt's James Robinson, is at 3.51. No. 3? Butler's Tyler Lewis, at 3.25. No. 4? Why, that's only Wichita State guard Fred Van Vleet -- whose career has been synonymous with intelligent, turnover-averse point guard play -- at 3.04.
Monday night was a gleaming example of Morris at his best: He played all 40 minutes against the Jayhawks and didn't turn the ball over once -- as if nine assists weren't impressive enough already. Prior to the Kansas game, Morris had recorded at least three turnovers only eight times in 89 career games. Now you can make that 90, and underline the zero. The dude just doesn't turn the ball over.
His value in this regard can't be understated. Hoiberg's offense, now maintained in large part by first-year coach Steve Prohm, thrives on getting -- and making -- lots of shots. The Cyclones don't chase offensive rebounds, at least not as a habit. They rarely force turnovers on the defensive end, despite what Kansas' sloppy second half Monday night might have you believe. If ISU was turnover prone -- if it allowed teams to snuff out its possessions before a shot -- the Cyclones' sheer volume of shots would too often trail their opponents'. That potent inside-out accuracy, those Niang mismatches and wrong-foot finishes in the lane, and all that movement and spacing and glorious primary-break genius -- all of it would go to waste.
Instead, the Cyclones get, and make, a ton of shots. Instead of where this season might have gone -- when this team was 1-3 in the league and Prohm was under local heat for his players' disengaged effort -- Iowa State finds itself back in the thick of the Big 12 title chase.
Niang is a big reason for that, maybe the biggest. He's brilliant. So is the offensive system that has for four years unleashed his atypical talent.
But make no mistake: So, too, is Monte Morris. Against Oklahoma, Morris made the biggest shots of Iowa State's season. He does that sometimes. Seven days later, the Cyclones' unsung point guard was back to doing what he always does, what he has done for three seasons (and counting) better than any other player in the game.
He made sure those shots were there to take.