It just feels right, doesn't it? Iowa State has advanced to the Sweet 16 for the first time since 2000, but given the trajectory of this program, it seems as if this is going to be a familiar position for this program in the future. What Fred Hoiberg has been able to accomplish in his four seasons back in Ames is nothing short of remarkable considering where this program was when he took over.
The Mayor has defied the odds from day one and continues to do so, but perhaps his greatest feat to date was figuring out a way to get this team to the second weekend of the NCAA tournament. With star sophomore, Georges Niang, ruled out for the tournament after suffering a fracture in his right foot against North Carolina Central, it looked like the Cyclones were headed for a third straight round of 32 exit. Except it didn't happen. Iowa State found a way to outlast North Carolina and now heads to Madison Square Garden to battle with Connecticut.
While Iowa State and UConn may not see each other often, there are some interesting backstories in play on Friday night. Both Hoiberg and Kevin Ollie are coaching their alma maters of course, but these two actually played together while on the Chicago Bulls. Then of course there's that
first round second round game two years ago where Iowa State triumphed over the Huskies. Actually, "triumphed" really doesn't do justice to how that game turned out. Iowa State whipped UConn's ass and it just so happened to be Jim Calhoun's last game as a coach. Probably not the way the hall of famer wanted to go out.
That's all ancient history now though. Friday night's game is full of mostly new faces and the venue figures to be much more friendly for UConn. By all accounts, Huskie fans have bought up every last ticket in an effort to turn "the world's most famous arena" into a de facto home atmosphere.We'll see just how accurate that turns out to be, but this Iowa State team has yet to lose on a neutral court this season and comes into this game riding a six-game winning streak. It should be an electric evening in the Big Apple.
Looking At the Huskies
This is a dangerous team (as is any team left in the tournament), but in UConn's case, this is especially true considering who they're led by. Shabazz Napier has been exceptional this season and is averaging 24.5 points in two tournament games thus far. Iowa State has faced some excellent guards over the course of the year, but perhaps none more lethal than Napier. He's a threat to pull up or beat you off the dribble, has what seems like limitless range and as a senior, is playing like a guy who's trying to cement his legacy. Whether or not he has the ball, Napier commands constant attention and you can almost bank on him getting at least 20 points.
The Huskie back court is far from a one-man show, however, and is the true strength of this team. Napier's primary running mate, Ryan Boatright, is one of the quickest players in all of college basketball and can break down just about anybody when he has the ball in his hands.
With the attention that Napier and Boatright draw, it really opens things up for the rest of this team and the surrounding cast has taken advantage. UConn as a team can flat out stroke it from deep (39.3% as a team) and has four guys who've hit at least 40 three pointers and five who've hit at least 20. That could set up a potential air raid of a match up as Iowa State has five players who've hit at least 40 threes and seven who've hit at least 20 (though Niang and his 48 treys won't be in action).
6'9" DeAndre Daniels could prove to be a difficult match up for the Cyclones. The junior is UConn's second leading scorer with 12.6 per outing and has excellent range, as evidenced by his 44.7% clip from behind the arc. UConn doesn't have the length that North Carolina had, but that's not necessarily a bad thing if you're Kevin Ollie. The Huskies should be better suited to defend Iowa State's small-ball rotation
As a team, UConn has really excelled on the defensive end. I'll be very interested to see how these two teams stack up near the basket. UConn is holding opponents to just 41.8% shooting inside the arc, which is the 7th best clip nationally. Iowa State though, is shooting 54.6% (9th in the country), meaning something has to give. Part of the reason UConn is as stout as they are is because they block a ton of shots. This team has turned back nearly 16% of all opponents attempts, which is one of the better block rates in college basketball.
One area where Iowa State could find some success is on the offensive glass. The Cyclones haven't been a great offensive rebounding team, but UConn has really struggled to hold opponents to just one shot, meaning Dustin Hogue and Melvin Ejim could do some damage.
And The Winner Is...
I'll admit, when I picked Iowa State to beat North Carolina, that wasn't exactly a "thinking with my head" moment. That was a pick based in raw emotion and blind faith. I thought Iowa State was going to win that game because everything that I've ever known and learned about sports told me that the Cyclones could overcome long odds and respond when few gave them a chance to do so (thanks Mighty Ducks!).
But after Iowa State beat North Carolina, I realized something that actually, I already should have known - do not doubt Fred Hoiberg. The Mayor has proven time and time again just how phenomenal he is at this whole coaching thing and with last Sunday's win, he entered an entirely new stratosphere in the coaching pantheon. Hoiberg's approach to the game and philosophy toward exploiting mismatches is not a gimmick, nor is it a crutch used to overcome some type of perceived talent gap. This guy understands basketball both on the court and off it. Whether it be preparation and planning or setting up a well-designed play out of a timeout, Hoiberg excels in all aspects of managing and coaching his roster.
Iowa State is not a better team without Georges Niang on the floor, but that doesn't mean that Hoiberg can't find a way to maximize the execution and production of the rest of the roster in Niang's absence and on Sunday, Iowa State did just that. The Mayor had less than 48 hours to draw up a game plan for North Carolina. By the time Friday evening hits, he'll have had nearly five full days.
Coaching only goes so far, however, and as the saying goes, coaches don't win games, players do. That leads us to the much anticipated battle between DeAndre Kane and Napier. Aside from Russ Smith at Louisville, I don't know that there are two better guards left in this tournament than these two. This is going to be a true showdown and each guy should and likely will match each other bucket for bucket. Earlier in the year, when Kane encountered the first of these "showdowns", it came against Marcus Smart of Oklahoma State. At the time, I remember many worrying that a "hero ball" mentality would take over and Kane would lose sight of what Iowa State was trying to accomplish on the offensive end of the floor. In reality though, Kane took his game to another level in both match ups with Smart and the things that make him so dynamic and unique (facilitating, passing, attacking...playmaking) only shown brighter. Kane won both of those battles hands down and I think he's got another chance to turn in another one of those performances on Friday night.
As for the rest of the Cyclones, I loved how Ejim and Hogue fed off each other last Sunday and I expect to see that same type of action again tonight. We know that both will be active around the basket, but with Niang out, Iowa State actually gains a skill that they haven't utilized much prior to the injury. Hogue and Ejim can get to the rack and they can get there in a hurry. While Niang relies on backing opponents down and getting off shots with an array of moves that the likes of George Mikan, Bill Walton and Kevin McHale could appreciate, Hogue and Ejim put their heads down and attack. That may lead to some careless shots and even player control fouls, but they're both also pretty good at playing that type of game and it also opens things up for those two outside. Generally, I expect this pair to be a pain in the ass for UConn to defend, which is a role they both excel in and are most comfortable with.
On the outside, I expect to see Monte Morris continue his stellar play, whether it be chasing Napier or Boatright on the defensive end or knocking down big shots when his number is called. And speaking of knocking down big shots, does UConn just face guard Naz Long? 3sus is stupid-hot at this point and during this current six-game winning streak, he's knocked down some of the more memorable and clutch shots in recent Cyclone history.
Iowa State is firing on all cylinders at this point and while UConn's outside shooting and the overall ability of Napier are both worrisome, I actually like this match up for the Cyclones and see Iowa State advancing to the Elite 8. It's going to be a shootout, but give me Iowa State in a classic.
Iowa State 87 - Connecticut 82
Tip: 6:25 PM CST
TV: TBS, with Bill Raftery and Verne Lundquist on the call and Allie LaForce playing the role of "fine sideline muff".
Radio: The game can be heard as always on the Cyclone Radio Network. Sobriety (broadcasters included) as always is optional.
Cyclones.com Game Notes: Available here
UConn's SBN Blog: The UConn Blog