In the nine years before Fred Hoiberg returned to Ames, Iowa State made the NCAA Tournament once. After taking over in 2010, the former Cyclone great turned things around immediately, making the second round in each of the last two seasons. In 2012, a team lead by Royce White gave Kentucky their only real scare of the Tourney. On Sunday, they came up just short against Ohio State in a controversial 78-75 nailbiter. The early returns are impressive, but Hoiberg's free-flowing and wide-open style of play is what has really caught the eyes of NBA GM’s. He could become the Chip Kelly of college hoops, unless the NBA grabs him before he has the chance to finish the job at Iowa State.
After retiring as a player in 2006, Hoiberg took a job in the front office of the Minnesota Timberwolves. His extensive background in the NBA gave him a distinct advantage when he returned to the Big 12, home to such 'brilliant' coaching minds as Rick Barnes, Scott Drew and Travis Ford. In order to turn the Cyclones program around quickly, he began bringing in transfers from all over the country. Most coaches wouldn’t have been able to integrate that many new faces, but Hoiberg assembled a team heavy on shooting, a quick way to make up for a lack of continuity. By playing five three-point shooters at once, Hoiberg spread the floor as wide as possible, the logical endpoint to the way the game has changed over the last generation.
The top six players in Iowa State’s rotation all took at least two three-pointers a game. Will Clyburn was the only one who shot less than 38 percent from the beyond the arc. Clyburn, an athletic 6’7 210 shooting guard, was the team’s best player; when he had the ball in his hands, defenses had to respect the other four players spread out along the three-point line. The result was huge driving lanes to take the ball to the rim, as well as space for everyone else to use when defenses collapsed. Iowa State’s offense was a beautiful mix of Mike D’Antoni and Don Nelson, designed to create enough space to exploit a mismatch at any position on the floor.
When they were executing and avoiding turnovers, the Cyclones were almost impossible to defend. They had an offensive rating of 111.8, 15th best in the country, despite having marginal talent for a Power Six conference. They don’t have a single McDonald’s All-American and only two players (Clyburn and Chris Babb) with clear next level potential. Scouting them was only so useful because they didn’t need to run any sets to get an offensive flow. They created space on the floor, trusted their players to win 1-on-1 match-ups and had everyone else in position to take advantage of the rotating defense. In short, Hoiberg allowed his players to play basketball and trusted them to make the right decisions from there.
It was a refreshing change from the vast majority of college offenses this season, which lacked the spacing or the skill-level to consistently execute in the half-court. It’s the same basic idea behind Kelly’s offense at Oregon: create tempo by using skilled athletes to attack in space and keep the defense off balance. Mike D’Antoni began an offensive revolution in Phoenix by spreading the floor with three shooters around Steve Nash. His system turned an aging point guard the rest of the NBA didn’t want into a two-time MVP and an undrafted free agent into an international superstar in the span of a few weeks. In a similar fashion, Hoiberg turned a bunch of cast-offs other programs sent away into one of the most dangerous teams in the country.
Iowa State was never quite able to get over the hump against elite teams this season. They lost to Kansas three times (twice in overtime), and couldn’t quite finish off Ohio State. As D’Antoni found out, there’s an obvious downside on the other side of the floor to playing so many offensive-minded personnel. The Cyclones starting PF (Melvin Ejim) was 6’6 230; their starting C (Georges Niang) was 6’7 245. They were gambling they wouldn’t run into any big man capable of punishing them on the block, which wasn’t that much of a gamble when you consider how few low-post scorers there are anymore. The real problem was they didn’t have a shot-blocker who could protect the rim against dribble penetration.
The key to running Hoiberg’s system is finding athletic big men who can hold their own defensively while still stretching the floor. The good news is that those players are becoming more versatile at an increasingly younger age. Instead of being encouraged to gain weight and wrestle on the low block, the biggest and most athletic players have drifted out to the three-point line. You can see them starting to appear in the college game. Isaiah Austin, Baylor’s 7’1 220 freshman hybrid center, took 2.7 three-pointers a game this season and knocked them down at a 33 percent clip. Adreian Payne, a 6’10 240 junior center for Michigan State, has the size and athleticism to average 7.5 rebounds and 1.3 blocks a game in 25 minutes while also shooting 40% from deep, albeit on only 37 attempts this season.
You don’t need to look far to see what Hoiberg’s system can do with the right talent. Erik Spoelstra turned the tide of last season’s NBA Finals by going small and hasn’t looked back from there. With Chris Bosh and Shane Battier spreading the floor from the front-court, defenses are stretched to the limit while trying to prevent LeBron James and Dwyane Wade from attacking the rim. There’s too much space to cover to do both, so the only way to defend Miami is to have athletes good enough to keep LeBron and Wade in front of them. The Heat have reeled off 26 straight wins over the last two months; that’s what happens when you spread the floor for the best athletes in the NBA.
There is one team that would be an obvious fit for Hoiberg. Scott Brooks is apparently beloved in the Oklahoma City locker room, but his lack of tactical and strategic acumen has cost the Thunder dearly in each of the last two seasons. It wouldn’t take very long for Hoiberg to make some very obvious adjustments: benching Kendrick Perkins and playing Serge Ibaka and Kevin Durant full-time at the 5 and 4 positions. Ibaka has a great-looking outside shot and has gone 17-for-49 from beyond the arc this season; Hoiberg would have him shooting a lot more three-pointers. With LeBron being LeBron, the odds of Oklahoma City winning a title aren’t great, which is even more reason to not stick with a coach who has apparently decided that Perkins and Derek Fisher are the hills he wants to die on.
At the end of the day, no coach or system will be able to make up for not having the best players. However, in the modern NBA, the best way to maximize the skills of those players is a wide-open offense that gives them space to create shots. Even if you don’t have the best talent, a system like Hoiberg’s gives you the chance to compete on a nightly basis with a crowd-pleasing product that can create stars out of otherwise average players. His grasp on the importance of floor spacing has allowed him to turn Iowa State into a burgeoning national power in only three seasons. If he doesn’t go to the NBA, the Cyclones will be must-watch TV for basketball fans looking to see where the future of the sport is headed.