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We're Talking Iowa

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The annual Cy-Hawk game has arrived, a full 24 hours earlier than normal!

Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports

This year's installment of the Cy-Hawk game figures to be one of the more competitive and entertaining battles in the recent history of the rivalry. Iowa is a fringe top-25 team and will bring a confident effort into Hilton Coliseum to battle with what might be one of the best Iowa State teams in program history.

This will be Steve Prohm's baptism into the rivalry, and while the Cyclones have played a sneaky tough schedule, tonight's game will be his first true major test.

There seems to be a sense of nervous optimism among Cyclone fans and Iowa fans are brimming with reserved hope. Though the rankings may not reflect it, there's not as significant of a gap in talent and ability as some would suggest.

What's To Like

  • Starting with the obvious, I love the match up problems Iowa State should be able to create offensively in this contest. The Hawkeyes will switch up their defensive looks, spending time in man, zone and will trap, but in man-to-man sets, Iowa State figures to have a huge advantage. Anthony Clemmons is a capable defender that will shadow Naz Mitrou-Long on the perimeter and Adam Woodbury certainly won't be afraid to set up shop in the paint, but with Fran McCaffery starting a 3-guard line up, Abdel Nader could have a big night, especially if Peter Jok draws the assignment of checking the bigger and more physical Nader. When Iowa goes to zone, look for Prohm to place Georges Niang in the middle of the floor, where he's proven to be lethal in the past (see any game against Texas from last year). With Niang operating in the middle and Monte Morris penetrating from the perimeter, it could leave driving lanes for Nader, spot-up opportunities for Mitrou-Long and plenty of lobs for Jameel McKay. Should Iowa decide to trap, Iowa State will have four more than capable ball handlers on the floor at all times.
  • Through 7 games, Iowa State has been vastly improved on the defensive end of the floor. Credit Steve Prohm, credit a renewed focus, whatever. The Cyclones are ranked 17th in adjusted defensive efficiency according to kenpom.com and have held 5 of 7 opponents to sub 40% shooting. Iowa State has also done a remarkable job of limiting second-chance opportunities (12th nationally in opponent's offensive rebounding rate) and keeping the opposition off the free throw line (4th best rate in the country).
  • The Cyclones haven't dropped a home game to a non-conference opponent since 2012, a streak of 31 games. They've won 27 of those games by double digits and the streak includes 2 wins over Iowa, a 21-point win over BYU, a win over a top-10 Michigan team and a 22-point win over a ranked Arkansas squad to name a few. Iowa State has also won 6 straight over Iowa in Hilton Coliseum and has won 5 of the last 6 in the overall series. Fran McCaffery is just 1-4 against Iowa State.

What's Not to Like

  • I started off by talking about how well Iowa State matches up against Iowa when the Cyclones have the ball, but there could similarly be a few match up issues for Iowa State on the defensive end. The ideal candidate to guard Jarrod Uthoff would be Nader, but with McCaffery employing a smaller line up, you'd have to put Niang on a guy like Jok, which wouldn't be a good fit. Iowa will play 9-10 guys, so there will be stretches where each side has perceived advantages and Prohm will have to hope that Niang is up to the task of keeping Uthoff in check.
  • From an efficiency stand point, this could be one of the better offensive units McCaffery has fielded (ranked 22nd in adjusted offensive efficiency according to kenpom.com). With a smaller group, Iowa isn't nearly as reliant on points in the paint as years past, which is okay because this might be the best outside shooting team McCaffery's had since arriving in Iowa City. The Hawkeyes are shooting 40.2% from deep as a team and at 48.8%, Uthoff is proving to be one of the best marksmen in the country.
  • Few teams in the country are as experienced as the Cyclones, but Iowa is one of them. The Hawkeyes start a quartet of seniors, just as Iowa State does and that group has not only played in hostile environments, but notched a couple huge road wings along the way. On that note, Mike Gesell is playing the best basketball of his career. He has one of the best assist rates in the country and the Iowa attack is noticeably weaker when he's not on the floor.

So Who Wins?

As bizarre as this may seem, defending this Iowa team is ironically like defending "Hoiball". Don't believe me?

  • Iowa trailed Notre Dame by 17 points and Dayton by 14, but battled back in both of those games, losing tight contests in the end, suggesting that it's incredibly difficult to put the Hawkeyes away for good.
  • Lazy wisdom has long said that Iowa State lives and dies by the 3-point shot, but it's in fact Iowa that is more reliant on outside shooting. The Hawkeyes take a greater percentage of their shots from deep and generate a greater percentage of their points from 3-point land than Iowa State.
  • This may surprise you, but Iowa has a much better assist rate as a team. One of the cornerstones of Iowa State in recent years has been their ability to pass the basketball. With two point guards in the starting line up, Iowa is excelling at moving the ball to generate points.

So how do you stop this Iowa attack? For starters, Iowa State has to force Iowa into iso situations. Whether that means overplaying the ball or sinking back defensively, we'll find out soon enough.

In this type of match up, sometimes the best defense is a good offense. Iowa State has to take advantage of its opportunities, maximizing efficiency by reducing turnovers and limiting empty possessions. If this game simply comes down to a shoot out, Iowa State should be fine, but there can't be prolonged cold spells.

Every metric suggests that this is not only the best opponent Iowa State has played to date, but should also be its closest game. The Cyclones passed a similar type of test in the opener against Colorado and were dominant down the stretch against Illinois to put that game away. Thursday will likely have a similar game flow.

This Iowa team is good enough to battle back from large deficits and has the experience to spring the upset. That being said, Iowa State still has a lopsided talent advantage and home court to boot. More importantly, Iowa State has Georges Niang.

I suspect that Monday night's game against Buffalo awoke something in Niang and was a revelation to the Iowa State coaching staff. Niang had been playing well through six games, but his usage rate was down and he hadn't been getting as many touches as years past.

31 points later, Prohm saw just how lethal Niang can be. Perhaps the most telling moment of Niang's career night, however, came late in the game with Niang sitting on 29 points. He got the ball at the top of the key, passing up a semi-open 3 and drove into the paint as the entire Buffalo defense collapsed on him. Knowing that he needed just one more bucket to hit the 30-point mark, Niang could have lofted up a floater, but being the playmaker that he is, spotted McKay on the opposite block and threw a lob that McKay easily put down with no other defender around him.

That play symbolized just how unique of a player Niang is. He was 5-7 from deep at that point, but passed up the 3. He's hit hundreds of shots in the paint, but he passed up the shot. Instead, he was a step ahead of the entire defense, knowing that if he was patient, he could guarantee Iowa State a high percentage shot. I've said this in the past and I'll say it again, but I'm not sure if there's a smarter player in all of college basketball than Niang.

The offensive game plan for Iowa State is simple; run every possession through Niang and things will take care of themselves.

Iowa State 83 - Iowa 75

Game Notes

Tip: 6:30 PM CST

TV: ESPN2 with Mark Neely on play-by-play and my main man, Fran Fraschilla, providing color

Radio: Cyclone Radio Network

Cyclones.com Game Notes: Available here

Iowa SB Nation Site: Black Heart Gold Pants