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Iowa State's Chances To Win Big 12

With the best start in school history, Iowa State has been one of the most underrated teams ranked in the AP Top 25. After beating Boise State in the finals of the Hawaii Airlines Diamond Head Classic, the Cyclones are looking like a real contender in the Big 12.

Iowa State has played a quality schedule so far with home wins over Michigan and Iowa in addition to a road win against BYU. The Cyclones rank fourth in ESPN’s RPI rankings with an 11-0 record.

After starting the season unranked, Fred Hoiberg's team has climbed to 14th in the AP poll in large part because of the play in the frontcourt. Senior Melvin Ejim has seen a steady improvement as he’s averaging 18.0 points and 8.8 rebounds per game this season. The lengthy Canadian has been a slasher from the wing who could finish from mid-range or at the rim. He’s grabbed 30 percent of his rebounds on the offensive glass, resulting in extra possessions for Iowa State. Ejim been solid from three-point range, shooting 37 percent from three, but has been versatile on the offensive end.

Sophomore Georges Niang has been another scoring option averaging 16.0 points per game. The 6-foot-7 center can stretch the floor with his jumper and although his rebounding numbers aren’t great, at 3.7 per game, Niang has really picked up the scoring load lately. In the last five games, he’s averaging 21.2 points per contest while shooting 55 percent from the floor and 45 percent from three. If he continues to play at this level, Iowa State will be tough to beat.

The final piece to the starting frontcourt, Dustin Houge, is the only Cyclone averaging double figures in both the scoring (13.5) and rebounding (10.3) departments. The junior college transfer has provided an immediate impact with his hard-nosed rebounding.

And yet the biggest piece to the puzzle may be in their point guard, DeAndre Kane. The transfer from Marshall had a season-high 23 points against Boise State on 8-of-14 shooting and a 4-of-6 showing from three. His 6-foot-4, 200 pound frame gives him a considerable size advantage over most defenders, but he still has the quickness to attack off the dribble. If Kane shoots from deep as well as he did against Boise State, defenders will face a dilemma when defending the pick-and-roll.

Kane has been a do-it-all point guard averaging 14.9 points, 7.5 rebounds, and 5.5 assists per game. If there’s a player who can slow down Oklahoma State’s Marcus Smart, Kane may be the ideal matchup.

The biggest question mark might be in the depth of the Cyclones, but the starting frontcourt and point guard play has Iowa State off to an undefeated start. With four ranked Big 12 teams in the AP Top 25 along with an emerging Oklahoma squad, it will be an exciting conference to follow this season. The play of Oklahoma State, Baylor, and Iowa State will give Kansas trouble in winning its tenth consecutive regular season title.

Coaches That Peak Early In The Year

Believe in the Cyclones because you should believe in the Hawkeyes

For a lot of poll voters, Iowa St.’s home victory over Iowa won’t be that impressive. Many observers will say this was just another case of “Hilton Magic”. They will say weird things happen in that loud arena and that led Iowa’s Mike Gesell to miss two free throws in the final minute.

But I think that sells this game short. This game wasn’t defined by Hilton Magic as some of Iowa St.’s other games have been. This wasn’t a game with a bunch of huge three point shots, a huge run for the home team, and a road team looking shell-shocked.

That’s not to say the arena wasn’t rocking. From the opening tipoff, the fans were loud. They were as passionate as any fans will ever be in December. But this game was not about Iowa being rattled. For most of the game, the Hawkeyes played like a veteran team. They executed beautiful out-of-bounds plays, including one gorgeous lob in the second half. They ran the secondary break so well, with Aaron White constantly finding defenders out of position, that Tar Heel fans would have been jealous. And when things got stuck in the half-court, Roy Devyn Marble and Mike Gesell were effective at getting into the lane and finding cutters. Iowa’s consistent effort and execution was at a much higher level than what we have seen from any Iowa St. opponent this year. For 38 minutes, every time Iowa St. went on a run, Iowa had an answer.

The announcers seemed surprised by this. Perhaps Iowa is sneaking up on people because they missed the NCAA tournament last year. But by almost every statistical measure, Fran McCaffery’s rebuilding project is reaching the end. The next table shows how Iowa’s Efficiency Margin (opponent adjusted offense minus opponent adjusted defense) has improved since McCaffery became head coach in 2010-11. The table also shows how McCaffery has reinstated the fast-paced style of basketball that made Iowa a joy to watch in earlier eras.

Year

 

Coach

Pace

Eff. Margin

2009-10

Todd Lickliter

62.6

-1.1

2010-11

Fran McCaffery

67.9

5.7

2011-12

Fran McCaffery

68.6

7.2

2012-13

Fran McCaffery

67.4

16.5

2013-14

Fran McCaffery

71.9

21.1

The reason Iowa is not getting more credit is because as good as they have looked in most games, Iowa simply does not have the resume wins against quality teams. Last year in Big Ten play against NCAA tournament teams, Iowa picked up three quality wins. They beat Wisconsin, Illinois, and Minnesota. But against most of the NCAA tournament teams the Hawkeyes faced, they lost nail-biters. Iowa lost to Michigan St. by three points twice, lost to Indiana by four, lost to Minnesota by three, and lost to Wisconsin in 2OTs. And because they could not finish those games, a lot of people were unwilling to acknowledge how well the team was playing.

Those same skeptics will be out again this year. In Iowa’s two games against elite competition this season, against Villanova and Iowa St., Iowa came up short. The Hawkeyes lost in OT and lost by three points on the road. To some observers, Iowa’s inability to win close games against elite teams proves that this is not a quality team.

There is one part of that poor close game execution story that I buy. This isn’t so much about Gesell missing those two free throws, but it is about Iowa’s extreme balance. Balance is a great thing when the team is playing well. But it can be a problem in close games. Iowa does not have a Keith Appling type closer, a guy who can get into the lane in crunch time and punish his opponent by knocking down his free throws. (Roy Devyn Marble should be that guy, as his driving has reached another level this season. But Marble’s free throw stroke has been off this year, and he doesn’t have the confidence in close games right now.) Perhaps, the lack of a “closer” is a real concern.

But this emphasis on Iowa’s flaws undersells what Iowa St. did to win this game. Dustin Hogue, the undersized JUCO forward at 6’6”, played like the biggest man on the floor, dominating the boards and being strong at the free throw line in crunch time. DeAndre Kane couldn’t make a basket, but he didn’t let it stop him from playing smart basketball. Kane penetrated and dished out 9 assists, and his inbounds pass off of Adam Woodbury’s back for a lay-up was brilliant. But most importantly, Georges Niang was the closer that Iowa wishes they had. Niang got the ball time-and-time again down the stretch, and no one on Iowa could keep him out of the lane.

And when I looked up the Sagarin Ratings on Sunday morning, according to Sagarin’s margin-of-victory based predictor, Iowa St. and Iowa are both in the Top 10. It is early, and I am skeptical that both teams will be there in March. But after watching these two teams play polished basketball on a Friday night in December, it felt about right.

On the Flip Side

At some point during Saturday’s North Carolina vs Kentucky game, Dick Vitale said we should all call our friends and tell them that the game was close. Suffice it to say, I passed on that recommendation. Whatever you think about these two teams, this was not a fun basketball game. There were way too many fouls and way too many free throws. And it didn’t feel like a game with athletic plays and fierce defense leading to more free throws. It just felt like a lot of bodies running into one another with no continuity. (Worse yet, the foul shooting wasn’t even that great. North Carolina was 26 of 45, while Kentucky was 29 of 43 from the charity stripe.)

Now, I don’t want to say there were not some surprising performances. Kentucky’s Alex Poythress seemed to be playing inspired basketball for once, before he fouled out. Kentucky’s Andrew Harrison got into the lane and found his big men for a few highlight reel buckets. North Carolina’s JP Tokoto proved that we shouldn’t yell “terrible shot” every time he jacks up a long range jumper.  And North Carolina’s James Michael McAdoo, went back in a time machine and started playing like he did last season when he was often the most important player on his team.

But this was still a game where neither team seemed to “get it.”

-Kentucky threw so many lazy passes that I thought John Calipari’s head was going to explode.

-Meanwhile North Carolina seemed unable to take advantage of Kentucky’s constant switching on defense. The Harrison twins are tall at 6’6”, but they shouldn’t be able to guard North Carolina’s forwards in the paint.

-Projected top NBA draft pick Julius Randle struggled against a team that could throw multiple big bodies at him in the paint.

-And North Carolina walk-on Jackson Simmons and 6th UNC forward Desmond Hubert were two of the most impressive players on the day, in no small part because they simply knew where to be offensively and defensively.

If ESPN’s speculation is correct, and PJ Hairston will be back in January, I still like the upside for both these teams. But at one point, Dick Vitale leaned over and said, “I don’t really like Kentucky’s offense here. They don’t seem to have any rhythm.” Kentucky was leading in the game at this point. And the comment was pretty much spot on. Nothing that happened in this game looked like a finished product.

Coaches Whose Teams Do Not Get Better

Last week I showed the list of coaches whose teams tend to improve the most in-season. Today I show the list of coaches whose teams usually peak early. Some of these coaches will make sense. There is a reason Dayton fans were happy to see Brian Gregory leave. There is a reason Paul Hewitt was forced out at Georgia Tech. More often than not, their teams built high expectations early in the year, and then faded.

But some names will be a surprise. Over the last 10 years, Mike Krzyzewski’s team has never played better after January 1st than before January 1st. This is true even after adjusting for opponent and venue which is what the Pythagorean winning percentage measures.

But I also want to say that these lists are not necessarily predictive of future results. Part of the reason Krzyzewski shows up on this list is that his teams have historically been dominant in November and December. Even his national title team from 2010 started hot at 11-1, with the only loss coming by a narrow margin in a road-game at Wisconsin. Because Duke has started so hot, there has been nowhere to go but down. With a weaker start this season, Duke does have room for improvement, and I expect we will see it. Still, the last two columns of this chart are fairly amazing:

Mike Krzyzewski

Off Nov/Dec

Off Later

Def Nov/Dec

Def Later

Pyth Nov/Dec

Pyth Later

2003-04

117.7

125.3

80.4

86.7

0.9802

0.9777

2004-05

118.0

118.3

76.9

87.3

0.9878

0.9577

2005-06

123.9

119.9

87.5

90.7

0.9725

0.9461

2006-07

111.1

115.2

79.2

88.0

0.9695

0.9408

2007-08

121.4

118.5

83.4

89.1

0.9791

0.9491

2008-09

117.0

118.2

82.8

91.9

0.9717

0.9293

2009-10

124.3

123.6

85.6

86.5

0.9786

0.9749

2010-11

122.2

119.9

82.6

89.8

0.9824

0.9505

2011-12

119.9

115.8

91.0

97.0

0.9441

0.8597

2012-13

119.5

119.1

84.0

91.9

0.9737

0.9349

Overall, here are the coaches with the biggest average drop in production from early in the season until later in the year. (Note: I only count seasons while coaching in a major conference and only show coaches with at least 4 years of data.)

In-Season Drops

Teams

Pyth Nov/Dec

Pyth Later

Diff

Brian Gregory

Georgia Tech/Dayton

0.7519

0.6605

-0.0915

Ken Bone

Washington St.

0.7676

0.6774

-0.0902

L. Eustachy

Colorado St./S. Miss

0.6503

0.5889

-0.0615

M. Anderson

Arkansas/Missouri

0.8671

0.8106

-0.0566

Tom Crean

Indiana/Marquette

0.8012

0.7489

-0.0522

Rick Barnes

Texas

0.9183

0.8841

-0.0342

Dave Rose

BYU

0.8694

0.8361

-0.0333

Tim Miles

Nebraska/Colorado St.

0.5702

0.5374

-0.0329

M. Krzyzewski

Duke

0.9740

0.9421

-0.0319

Paul Hewitt

G. Mason/Georgia Tech

0.8086

0.7772

-0.0314

Tim Miles is a bit of a surprise given that he tends to rebuild programs, but oddly last year at Nebraska was the first time in six years that his team played better after January 1st than before January 1st.

Bullets

-Big Ten teams didn’t necessarily look horrible this weekend, but their failure to pick up a signature win may be costly in March. Iowa narrowly lost at Iowa St. Michigan lost to Arizona at home. Illinois lost to Oregon. Indiana lost to Notre Dame. Purdue lost to Butler. And Penn St. lost in OT at home to Princeton. The league had lost 23 games through the first five weeks of the season and lost 6 games in the span of 27 hours.

-Indiana’s offense was always going to be a work in progress with so many new players, but it is a bad sign that the team could not find a way to score against Notre Dame. The Fighting Irish defense had been a sieve against the team’s four previous Top 100 opponents.

-Boise St. and La Salle were trendy mid-major NCAA tournament picks in the pre-season. Both were guard-led teams that played well late last season and brought just about everyone back this season. But right now I can feel people jumping off the band-wagon for both teams. After La Salle lost its fifth non-conference game on Sunday to Villanova, and after Boise St. lost at home to St. Mary’s neither team has any remaining shot to build a tournament worthy non-conference profile.

-I really enjoyed Gus Johnson and Bill Raftery’s call of the St. John’s vs Syracuse game on Sunday. But it is hilarious to hear the two together because they both like to emote after the game’s biggest plays. You could really tell Johnson was deferring to Raftery more than he normally would as St. John’s cut into the lead. Syracuse eventually won the game thanks to two huge baseline shots from CJ Fair.

-This week PG Tom Maayan left the Seton Hall team to return to military service in Israel. I’ve gone on the record before to say that Maayan’s departure should not be devastating to the Pirates. His turnover rate the last two years has been 54 percent and 45 percent. But then PG Sterling Gibbs went down with a knee injury in Seton Hall’s OT loss to St. Peter’s. And Gibbs is a huge loss. He led the team in percentage of possessions used, led all starters in efficiency, led the team in assist rate, and was one of the Top-5 players in the nation at getting to the free throw line this year. For the second season in a row unexpected player losses might stop Seton Hall from being competitive in the Big East.

-The calf injury to Oklahoma forward Ryan Spangler is also worth watching. Seldom-used senior forward Tyler Neal picked up the rebounding slack after Spangler went down, but Oklahoma can ill-afford to be missing its only clear post-defender and rebounder for an extended period of time.

-When Rutgers hired Eddie Jordan, I thought he would face an uphill climb due to all the roster attrition. But he did a brilliant job bringing players back who planned to transfer, and adding key pieces like JJ Moore. (This week the team also announced the addition of Georgetown transfer Greg Whittington.) It certainly seemed like Rutgers had a lineup that could compete in the AAC this year. But unfortunately, Jordan doesn’t seem to know how to teach defense right now.  This is the worst Scarlet Knights defense in the 12 years Ken Pomeroy has been keeping track of tempo free stats. For a power conference bottom feeder, it is never good to be setting a new standard of poor play. But that is exactly why Rutgers keeps dropping non-conference games.

Fred Hoiberg's Future

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.

Major Conference Tournaments Day 3

From Chaz Williams to Pierre Jackson to Jarred DuBois, several players made their mark on Thursday.

Comparing The Conferences

The Pac-12 has been suffering through a long dark period. The Big Ten has been dominant (at least in the pre-conference schedule) for the last few years. Should we expect a change this year? Is the Pac-12’s slump over? Is the Big Ten’s boom about to come to an end?

2012 Big 12 Power Rankings

It was Kansas, Missouri and Baylor atop the Big 12 for a large part of the season, but Bill Self’s Jayhawks eventually pulled away as they have in each of the past eight campaigns.

Freshmen Bring Hope

Teams that play a lot of freshmen are the most likely to improve as the season goes on, while those with a lot of experience are more likely to plateau. In this piece, we examine freshmen minutes for every major school in the country.

12 Compelling Storylines From Exempt Events

Here are 12 under-the-radar reasons to watch the smaller November tournaments of the 11-12 NCAA Basketball season.

Surprises And Flops, Part 2

Examining the surprises and flops this season in the Big East, ACC, Big 12 and Atlantic-10.

 

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