AMES, Iowa — Iowa State's Steve Prohm has lost four games in a row for the first time in his seven seasons as a head coach.
If the Cyclones keep improving like they have over the last two weeks, it might be the last time Prohm goes through this kind of misery for a while.
Iowa State (9-6, 0-4 Big 12) is in the midst of the struggles of an inevitable rebuild, losing four straight to open league play just 10 months after reaching its sixth straight NCAA Tournament. Yet the play of freshmen Cameron Lard and Lindell Wigginton, and a much healthier bench, has given the Cyclones hope that they can finish the season strong, starting Saturday at home against Baylor (11-5, 1-3).
"We've been getting better and better each game. I felt like these last two games were really good. We just couldn't come up with the win," Wigginton said.
That's what has been so frustrating for the young Cyclones, who rank behind only Pittsburgh among Power Five teams with just 12 total starts returning from 2017.After getting blown out at home by Kansas State in its league opener, Iowa State has dropped overtime games against Texas and at Oklahoma State, and taken Kansas to the wire in a five-point loss in Lawrence.
At least some of that progress can be traced to Prohm's decision to finally move Lard into the starting lineup the last two games.
The 6-foot-9, 225-pound Lard's raw ability has been obvious from the moment he took the floor in November. But Lard, who redshirted in 2017 after only arriving on campus last January, was also inconsistent and at times foul prone.
Lard is averaging 11.4 points, 6.8 rebounds and 1.9 blocks despite playing just 21 minutes a game. He's second in the Big 12 in field goal percentage at .644 — which would beat the current school record for a freshman set by Fred Hoiberg at .573 — and is four blocks shy of matching Marcus Fizer's mark for blocks by a freshman.
Lard has also put up four double-doubles, the most by a rookie since eventual Big 12 player of the year Melvin Ejim in 2011.
Lard said he is simply "being patient on the offensive end, and starting to learn to not get cheap fouls on the defensive end."
As for Wigginton, he'd be in line for Big 12 freshman of the year honors if it weren't for the play of Oklahoma counterpart Trae Young. Wigginton is second to Young in scoring (15.6 points a game) for Big 12 freshmen and is just one of three rookies nationally to average at least 15 points while shooting higher than 40 percent from 3-point range.
Nick Weiler-Babb just missed a triple-double last night while posting his sixth double-double of the season.— Cyclone Basketball (@CycloneMBB) January 10, 2018
He remains the nation’s only player averaging 12 ppg, 7 rpg and 7 apg.#Cyclones pic.twitter.com/7gnCIK9DOa
The Cyclones have also benefited from the recent returns of Hans Brase and Zoran Talley Jr., two crucial frontcourt reserves.
But the biggest thing Iowa State needs to learn before it starts winning again is how to close games out. The Cyclones have been in position to seize control of the lead with less than five minutes left in each of its last three games, but their inexperience showed itself each time.
Perhaps a win over Baylor, which is struggling as well, can get Iowa State over the proverbial hump.
"In this league, you have to look at the next game, and what you have to do to improve your team — especially with the team we have this year," Prohm said. "We're getting better. There's still a long way to go."