AMES, Iowa — Iowa State addressed its lack of experience at point guard with senior transfer DeAndre Kane, who has responded with an All-America type season.
It turns out that the kid coach Fred Hoiberg recruited for the job was ready for it all along.
Freshman Monte Morris has become indispensable for the 15th-ranked Cyclones (22-5, 10-5 Big 12), largely because he's better at protecting the basketball than anyone in the country. Morris has 101 assists against just 17 turnovers this season. He's on pace to shatter the NCAA's assist-to-turnover ratio record of 3.96-to-1 set by Tyler Newbold of Utah State in 2009.
Morris has also had at least five assists in his last seven games, including a 12 assist, zero-turnover performance in Wednesday night's 83-66 win over West Virginia. Iowa State, which has won seven of eight since making Morris a starter, faces Kansas State (19-9, 9-6) on Saturday.
"Monte makes great plays. Spectacular plays. He makes hard plays look easy," Hoiberg said. "He plays with such great poise and such good pace."
Iowa State has always been high on Morris, the reigning Mr. Basketball in Michigan known as "Man-Man" to his teammates.
The Cyclones were confident he could live up to that lofty nickname as a freshman, and for a while Morris was the favorite to start at point guard. But Hoiberg also likes experienced point guards, and the unexpected opportunity to add Kane to an NCAA-tournament ready roster was too enticing to pass up.
Morris earned a key role off the bench before the opener. By February, he had forced his way into the starting lineup with Kane.
Hoiberg made Morris a starter after the Cyclones dropped four of five games to close out January, and his efficiency has only increased as his responsibilities have grown. Morris has 90 assists with just nine turnovers in his last 656 minutes, and he is averaging 8.38 assists for every turnover in Big 12 play.
To put that in perspective, Morris's assist-to-turnover ratio in league games is three times higher than anyone else's.
"Right now I don't really get the full picture. But I'll probably get it later on down in my career like, 'I really did something special. Something big,'" Morris said. "Right now, it just seems regular."
It's not like Morris plays in a system where it's particularly easy to protect the ball either.
The Cyclones push the tempo as much as any team in the country, and guards like Morris and Kane are often looked upon to make the play that presents itself in transition rather than the one Hoiberg might call from the bench.
"He does everything for us," Hoiberg said. "He gets that thing and he makes plays. Throwing lobs, recognizing mismatches, he gets the ball into the post. He does such a good job of recognizing where the ball needs to get."
If Morris can keep it up, he'll become a true rarity in the NCAA record book.
According to Iowa State spokesman Matt Shoultz, the only freshman to break an NCAA record was Blake Ahearn of Missouri State, who made 97.5 percent of his free throws in 2004. The NCAA has only kept track of assist-to-turnover ratio since 2008, so it's quite possible that others had previously matched Morris but never got credit for it.
One thing seems sure: Iowa State should be set at point guard long after Kane is gone.
"He's really good. I mean, I knew he was really good," sophomore forward Georges Niang said. "The way he handles himself on and off the court is, he's mature beyond his years. When you have someone like that in your program and he's running the team as a freshman, that's comforting."