AMES, Iowa — No. 17 Iowa State is on the verge of falling out of the Big 12 Conference race before it even really begins.
Iowa State's surprising 1-3 start in league play has put it in a precarious spot heading into Saturday's road game at Kansas State (11-5, 1-3 Big 12).
The Cyclones (12-4) are already three games behind league-leading West Virginia, and two behind No. 1 Kansas and No. 2 Oklahoma.
A loss to the Wildcats might prove to be a fatal blow to their title hopes.
"I've been through this same situation before. Obviously it's a different city, different state, different team," first-year Iowa State coach Steve Prohm said. "If you don't have great kids, you can't get through it. But we've got great kids...we've got character and we've got talent. So we'll get through."
The Cyclones shaky start in the Big 12 can be traced largely to a lack of both defense and depth.
Iowa State still hasn't lost its ability to score with ease. But the Cyclones, who insisted they would focus more heavily on defense under Prohm, have let opponents get way too comfortable at times.
Iowa State let Baylor score 60 points in the second half, blowing an 11-point lead in the final 14 minutes of a 94-89 home loss last week. The Cyclones gave Texas a ton of open looks Tuesday and the Longhorns won 94-91 in overtime after hitting 13 3-pointers.
Iowa State allows 75 points per game and an opponent field-goal percentage of 43.3 — both worst in the Big 12.
"There's a bunch of words I can use for that one," star Georges Niang said when asked about Iowa State's defensive identity. "We lost it. I think we're working to get that back."
Still, one of the biggest culprits of bad defense is tired legs — and no team in the country pushes its starters more than the Cyclones.
Iowa State is essentially using just seven players after senior Naz Mitrou-Long decided in December to sit out the rest of the season because his hips hadn't healed from off-season surgery.
The Cyclones are currently the only team in the country with five starters all averaging at least 29 minutes a game, according to STATS. The cumulative minutes played for Iowa State's starting five, 163.4 out of 200 per game, are also first among Power Five schools.
Prohm — who has already cut back on working his top players much beyond an hour in practice — said Thursday that he expects reserves Deonte Burton and Hallice Cooke to get more minutes in the weeks ahead.
"I think (you have to be) smart about their bodies," Prohm said. "We'll be a little bit smarter and sharper about that. We'll get these guys rest. They're experienced. They'll be game ready."
The conventional notion for winning the Big 12 regular-season title has been for teams to sweep their nine league home games and go 5-4 on the road. If Iowa State falls to the Wildcats, it would need to win its final 13 games — including trips to Kansas, West Virginia and Baylor and Monday's home game with Oklahoma — just to reach 14-4 in Big 12 play.
It's not impossible for a team as talented as the Cyclones to make such a run.
But they'll need fresher legs and more defensive stops if they hope to make that happen.
"This isn't the first (measure) of adversity we've faced. We're ready to fight back and keep climbing. There are no quitters in this locker room," Niang said. People "are going to be in for a surprise."