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Getting Defensive

Taking a closer look at what determines success for Iowa State's defense.

Reese Strickland-USA TODAY Sports

We've all heard the timeless cliche, "Offense wins games, defense wins championships."

That's all fine and well, but defense also wins you games. Perhaps the most explicit example of which is the Cyclones' first game of the season against Colorado.

The Buffs put out the best 40-minute defensive effort the Cyclones have seen this season and likely will see as the team continues to gel offensively. Iowa State was held to a paltry 0.87 points per possession in that game, which sticks out like a sore thumb when you consider that the Cyclones' next worst offensive performance is 1.10 points per possession in a lackluster effort against the Golden Lions of Arkansas Pine Bluff.

So how was Iowa State able to win that slugfest? By holding the Buffaloes to a stifling 0.79 points per possession over 78 possessions. When analyzing a team like Iowa State, one must consider possession numbers when looking at defensive metrics. Iowa State thrives on an increased number of possessions, and what's getting lost in the shuffle of Iowa State's recent loss to UNI is that increasing possessions starts on the defensive end of the floor.

Quantifying Subjectivity

In an effort to find out what statistically drove my subjective feelings on a specific game, I took a closer look at games I felt the Cyclones played relatively well, and games I felt were sub-par performances to find out what changed. Games like Arkansas Pine Bluff, I was upset with the backdoor action even though we gave up a seemingly acceptable 64 points. Even though we gave up 1.03 ppp to Virginia Tech, it's hard not to feel good when ISU is up by 32 with 11 minutes left.

So what did I learn?

Good Games (6) Bad Games (4)
Colorado, Chi. St., Chattanooga, NDSU, Buffalo, VT Ark. PB, Illinois, Iowa, UNI
Average Number of Possessions 77.17 Average Number of Possessions 71.25
Average Offensive Points per Possession 1.13 Average Offensive Points per Possession 1.14
Average Defensive Points per Possession 0.85 Average Defensive Points per Possession 1.05
Average Defensive Time per Possession 17.13 Average Defensive Time per Possession 19.62
Average Turnovers Forced 14.33 Average Turnovers Forced 15.00
Average Margin of Victory 21.83 Average Margin of Victory 6.00

A couple of things really stick out to me. First, check out the offensive numbers. They're almost the exact same. Yes, some games are better than others offensively, but outside of the Colorado game, every game has been above 1.10 points per possession. So give ISU 40 minutes, and the offense will come together. So that doesn't explain why I'm feeling what I'm feeling.

Next, take a quick look at the number of possessions and number of turnovers forced. They're actually forcing more turnovers in their "bad" games, yet their possessions are down drastically (8.3%). The problem is they're defending about 2.5 seconds more per possession in their bad games.

Iowa State averages about 14 seconds per possession offensively. So in games where they're able to shorten opponent's TOP (19.5-17s/poss.) with their defensive pressure, they effectively gain a possession every 12 possessions, or more importantly, about 6 possessions per game. When you're a highly efficient offense, more possessions is always better, and you don't attain that by just shooting faster yourself.

So why does this matter?

Let's compare this team to last year's a bit. If you alter last year's tempo rate to reflect the impact of the shorter shot clock, Iowa State would average about 73.5 possessions if it were to play at the same pace this year. Offensively, both last year's and this year's team average 14 seconds per possession, yet the Cyclones are "playing faster" and averaging about 75 possessions per game this year.

The difference lies in the defense. When Iowa State is able to pressure the opponent and hurry them into a quicker shot (~77 possessions), good things happen. When they can't, (~71 possessions) us fans are left scratching our collective heads.

Most teams aren't as offensively gifted as Iowa State. They need that extra five seconds per possession to get the shot they want. Iowa State has to pressure, get in passing lanes, and gamble at steals (appropriately, Abdel...) to try and speed up these teams. Iowa State cannot let them pass it comfortably around the perimeter and waste time, effectively limiting their own offensive possessions. When you're able to do this, teams can often end up with good shots, but it's often the wrong person taking them.

Think about it in terms of Iowa State. If teams rush and close out well on a good three point shooter like Thomas or Niang (both greater than 40%), they often kick to the open player for another look. If this is Nader or Morris (both less than 33%) you'll take those odds as the opposing team.

When you do this to a player like Thomas, he will sometimes drive and shoot a little floater, but he's shooting 8% better from long range than he is from inside. That may not sound like much, but Thomas shoots on 15% of possessions he's on the court. If his shots were all two-pointers he would score 10.5 ppg on his average percentages. Conversely, he would score 19.5 ppg if they were all threes while shooting his average. Basically, by closing out hard and forcing him to do what you want as a defense, you're effectively halving his scoring ceiling. Iowa State needs to embrace that same concept, and get players to try and beat them in areas where they're less comfortable.

Conversely, Iowa State is completely comfortable using only half the shot clock. They can get what they want faster than most teams. This is why teams implement a pack line defense and try to get Iowa State to beat them from the outside. Problem is, if Iowa State tries the same strategy, they're effectively hurting themselves due to the limited possessions.

We've all seen it right? The 25-second defensive possession where the opponent makes a bucket as the shot clock is winding down. Dagger. People always assume that the longer ISU defends, the better defense they've played on that possession.


Iowa State is at its best defensively when it's forcing opponents to take early shots where they're uncomfortable doing so. Frequently, the end of shot clock play is the opponent's best play, often attacking their best matchup in a simple pick and roll after these guys have defended for 20 seconds. Check here for a great breakdown of ISU's pick and roll defense by Travis Hines. The Cyclones aren't great defending the pick and roll anyway, let alone after 20 seconds of defending.

Even in the low scoring Colorado game, Iowa State was able to speed Colorado up into a 78 possession game with some solid defense. Prohm famously said that he's shooting for three more defensive stops this year. Well the proof is in the pudding. When Iowa State is exhibiting the desired defensive effort, they're averaging six more possessions and giving up 0.2 less points per. By forcing the opponent into undesirable positions, they're getting the stops that Prohm envisioned when revamping the defense.

When Iowa State tips off against the Bearcats tonight, I'll be watching the defense, again. If Iowa State is content to let Cincinnati pass the ball around and move freely, my guess is they lose. If the Cyclones ratchet up the pressure and force them into some quick, uncomfortable shots, things get a lot easier.

Better defensive effort gives you more offensive opportunities. Forcing the other team to play your pace is affected just as much if not more by your defense than it is by your offense. If only it were as easy as it sounds.