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Iowa State Basketball’s Keys to Defensive Wizardry

An Eye-Test and Numbers Mashup of Iowa State’s Defense

NCAA Basketball: Iowa State at West Virginia Ben Queen-USA TODAY Sports

The Eye-Test

There are a couple very simple keys for any fan to see if the Cyclones are playing up to snuff on defense. The first one is obviously defensive rebounds. If Iowa State's opponents are cleaning up many of their own misses, that is a gloomy sign. Defensive rebounding is all about effort and discipline.

A fair analogy would be a running back picking up a loose pass rusher in football. The quarterback might get drilled if the running back doesn't pick up the blitzer or the quarterback might get off a quick pass before the blitzer gets there and you dodge a bullet. The more times the running back fails to pick up the blitzer though, the more chances you have to get burned.

The same applies to boxing out. Your individual man won't get the offensive board every single time, but if you continue to ignore block out responsibilities, the more opportunities you have to get punished for it.

As an observer, you can watch Iowa State players once the bad guys chuck up a shot to see if they are actually putting in the work to box out their man. Merrill Holden, Darrell Bowie and especially Deonte Burton will be vital to the rebounding effort. The guards helping down low is obviously important too, but the effort that those three give on the glass will directly determine how stout Iowa State will be defensively.

It was a huge problem last season, and with a smaller lineup, defensive rebounding ineptitude may rear its head again. However, a deeper rotation will undoubtedly help with box outs. In practice, Coach Prohm has supposedly focused mainly on defense and rebounding. We will see if it pays off for Iowa State, but at the very least, the coaching staff knows it is an issue that they need to focus on.

The second thing is preventing easy buckets. Iowa State gave up tons and tons of cupcakes last year. Opposing perimeter players would slice into the lane and too often there would be no one to slide over and prevent an easy shot. Or a post would come over to pick up the drive and the third defender wouldn't help down to cover the post, which creates effortless dump downs. Our depth was killer in that regard. Georges Niang and Jameel McKay could not afford to foul and were forced to play less aggressively. Hopefully the bench will help us be much improved in that area.

There are a couple of things to look for on drives. The first is how difficult is it for opposing guards to get past our defenders and into the paint. If the Cyclones are playing more of a pack line defense as Prohm has preached this fall, then it should be hard for opponents to get paint touches because there should be defenders in each driving lane. If you see Big 12 guards darting in the key almost every possession, then it is clear the Cyclones are playing poor defensively. Clearly, you aren't going to stop teams from ever getting into the paint, but the more you can limit those opportunities, the less easy buckets you will give up.

The second thing to look for here is if an opponent does drive into the lane, how much is Iowa State committed to scrambling help? This means a secondary defender rotating over to stop the drive and a third defender helping on the secondary's man. It doesn't stop there though. Once the ballhandler gets cut off and makes a pass, how hard are the Cyclones sprinting to the next defensive rotation off the pass? Then to the next pass in the sequence, then the next pass, then the shot contest and then the block out to finish the possession. That is an unbelievable amount of discipline, effort and anticipation on every play, but the great defensive teams do this. Every single time.

A couple other things to note were that Iowa State was close to last in the country in allowing opponent free throws. This most definitely had to do with our bigs actively avoiding foul potential situations because they knew there was no one to come in for them if they got in foul trouble. Free throws are very efficient ways to use offensive possessions, so it is positive that Iowa State avoided them. But at what cost? It is hard to say how many buckets we simply gave up because our bigs didn't want to come close to fouling the shooter. I would venture to say that it was quite a bit.

The other thing is that last season Iowa State, with the exception of Jameel McKay, pretty much punted at crashing for offensive rebounds. This directly leads to the Cyclones getting back on D and stopping easy transitions buckets. We were fairly decent at preventing fast break points because of this strategy.

If these eye-tests are all passed, there is no doubt Iowa State is playing rock solid on D. You might be thinking, "This is worthless, I could have told you that Iowa State needs to rebound better and prevent drives for easy scores." The point here is that I'm giving you key actions and movements by Cyclone defenders that you can look for in real time to diagnose where the defensive problems are stemming from.

Undoubtedly there will be kinks in the armor throughout the season, and by watching these keys during the game, you will be able to tell exactly what the issues are.

NCAA Basketball: Oklahoma at Iowa State Reese Strickland-USA TODAY Sports

The Numbers

Strictly in conference play, Iowa State gave up 44.5% shooting a year ago, which was below average in the league. This was aided by giving up only 33.4% from the three point line, which led the Big 12. This isn’t a positive sign indicating the Cyclones are great at defending from downtown because opponent three point percentage is mainly luck.

Opponents shot over 50% from two point range against Iowa State in conference play. You guessed it! This is where all the layups were coming from. This number is not good enough to win a conference championship or really compete for one.

Kansas was first in this category at 41%. Assuming ISU opponents’ three point shooting percentage will regress to the mean, that 50% from two needs to be cut way down to at least below 45%. This would be a significant measure of improvement for Coach Prohm’s squad. Increased depth, players not playing to avoid fouls and more of a defensive focus in practice is a healthy start to reaching that mark.

Add to this the fact that the Cyclones were dead last in the league in surrendering offensive rebounds and 9th in the league at forcing turnovers and you can paint the numerical picture of why Prohm has been harping on defense all fall.

Think about this. If in a conference game a Big 12 foe took an average two point shot against ISU, they had a 50% chance of making that shot. If they missed, they had the highest chance out of anyone in the league of rebounding that brick. Then, if they get the board, they have a 50% of scoring on the put back. Those are all great odds for any offense. Defensive improvement is vital for more wins this year.

As was obvious from the eye-test, the Cyclones were first in the league at not giving up free throws, which is great. But again, that hesitancy for contact at least in part led teams to shoot at that 50% clip.

For all the KenPom lovers, the Cyclones finished 91st in the NCAA in defensive efficiency. This would include all games and account for the strength of those opponents.

This biggest defensive numbers to watch this year in Iowa State’s box scores will be how well foes shoot from two point range as well as their offensive rebounding numbers. Combine that with (hopefully) continuing to allow minimal free throws.

There may be a small increase in opponent turnovers because of the Cyclone press. I have a hunch there won’t be though because Prohm will use the press more as a strategy to bleed the shot clock. Offenses starting their half court actions at 20 seconds on the shot clock or lower does help defensive percentages, so that could turn into an advantage.

The 2016-17 squad has the talent and depth to be much better on the defensive end. It seems as if the focus has been where it needs to be in the fall. I am optimistic the Cyclones will be able to mesh their new additions well and translate that effort to the court this winter.