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Iowa State Basketball: Defense is Trending

How Iowa State has improved defensively..... so far.

AdvoCare Invitational Photo by Sam Greenwood/Getty Images

On the defensive side of the ball, Iowa State has been trending in the positive direction so far this season. The Cyclones are only six games into the season and they have played three games against scrub teams from no name conferences. These statistics should be taken with a oversized grain of salt, but there are some developments working in favor of the good guys.


Steve Prohm’s squad is giving up an average of 0.743 points per possession on the season. This is very, very good and ranks the Cyclones in top 5% of Division 1 defenses. In Georges Niang’s final go-around, the defense gave up 0.901 points per possession on the season. This stat does NOT adjust for the opponents we’ve played.

Our friend over at has Iowa State ranked 35th overall defensively, and that IS adjusted for our opponents. This would be an improvement because the Cyclones’ best defensive effort on a season in the last few years has been ranked in the fifties. This is a great development and hopefully it will continue against Cincinnati, Iowa and into conference play.

Transition vs. Half Court

Iowa State’s opponents used about 13% of their offensive possessions in transition in 2015-16. This is quite a low number and it is most likely because last year the Cyclones essentially sacrificed crashing the offensive glass in favor of getting back on defense to prevent transition opportunities.

This year, opponents have used about 19% of their possessions in transition. This is due to a couple of factors. The Cyclones have made a concerted effort to send more bodies to the offensive boards, which has certainly benefited them on offense. The trade off is that foes have had more chances to run the break with Iowa State out of position going for rebounds.

Another factor is that Savannah State and the Citadel both like to really get up and down and chuck quick shots, good or bad. The Citadel is ranked number 1 in adjusted tempo on KenPom and Savannah State is ranked number 2. Fans wonder why Iowa State’s stats have been inflated to start the year and how Monte Morris was able to get a triple-double — and that is your reason.

In general, transition possessions are more efficient, but Synergy lumps all types of transition chances into one categorical bucket. The more specific transition trends are hard to pick out because not all transition trips are created equal. Iowa State has had turnovers that result in runout layups and they’ve had missed shots that turn into quick 3-on-3 possessions for a shot on the other end. Very different plays, but all variations are in the same transition category. Either way, the Cyclones are giving up more of those opportunities this year.


Last season, the squad only forced turnovers on 14% of opponent possessions, but this year it is up to 19.6%, which is a fantastic number. There are a couple points to note here.

Again, the Cyclones have played three and arguably four bad teams this year, and horribly inferior teams are much more likely to turn the ball over when facing better competition. Also, generally, the faster teams play (Citadel and Savannah State) the more likely they are to turn it over.


Iowa State is fouling more this year. The Cyclones’ defensive foul percentages are up a few points, but as with most basketball trends, there is a trade off. The more aggressive you are on defense, the more times you will foul, but also the more turnovers you will create (think Hack Virginia). Given the depth Prohm has, especially in the backcourt, Iowa State can afford to foul more if it results in higher turnover percentages.

The Press

The coaching staff has ended a defensive possession with the press on 21 possessions this year. The turnover percentage is an astronomical 38% on those possessions and the points per possession is at an incredible 0.476, but this is slightly misleading, so don’t go calling for 40 Minutes of Hell just yet. This only counts possessions that are ended during the press.

Let me explain.

Prohm’s press is a 1-2-2, 34 court pressure. It is not designed to trap ball handlers aggressively and have the other three defenders jump passing lanes for steals. It can work like that occasionally, and those possessions count towards the rates above, but most of the time he uses it to slow down the offense and work the shot clock.

Once the offense gets into the half court, the Cyclones fall back into their regular man to man. These possessions are then ended by the offense in the half court and not the press, so they are not included in those gaudy defensive press statistics. Yet, they are still possessions where Iowa State has used the press.

Since there are no solid numbers on how our press has worked in the “slow them down and take time of the shot clock” capacity, I will say I think it’s very effective for Iowa State. Statistics show that as the shot clock runs down, possessions are less and less efficient for an offense.

I would wager that defensive possessions where Iowa State has pressed to force teams to initiate offense later and thus shoot later in the shot clock, the defense has been more effective. Hopefully Prohm will keep using this strategy if it isn’t too draining on his players.

Jump Shots

Of all the possession types that Synergy tracks, the Cyclones have given up spot up shots the most at 30.5% of half court possessions. Last year, that number was down at 24.6%. Given how much I write that the Cyclones should be spotting up for threes on offense, I hope this number comes down.

Coach Prohm has said he wants to challenge 75% of shots. Synergy tracks the percentage of catch and shoot jump shots that are guarded and unguarded. Iowa State has guarded 79.3% of catch and shoot jumpers this year, which is excellent. Last season ,that number was at 64.4%. If that number can stay in the 75-80% range it will do wonders for the Cyclones because guarded jump shots are obviously much harder to make as opposed to unguarded.

Iowa State’s numbers against jump shots off the dribble are great at only 0.5 points per possession. They should continue to force these kinds of shots because they are as inefficient as shots come offensively. I’ve always advocated for running 3-point shooters off of the line and forcing them to take a dribble inside the arc to shoot it. Percentages offensively crumble that way because you are getting one less point and the attempt becomes higher difficulty off the dribble. The trade off is that if you run a shooter off the line, you risk him turning down a long two jump shot for a drive to get something better close to the rim. There is a fine line to tow there and Synergy’s statistics don’t capture what that balance should look like.

The Cyclones are allowing about 0.4 ppp on all jump shots inside the three point line and giving up 0.935 ppp on all jump shots from beyond the arc. The problem here is that only 22.9% of opponent jump shots are inside the arc, and the rest are 3-point bombs.


Iowa State has only given away 53 offensive rebounds over 6 games. This is an excellent number at less than 10 per game. The goal would be to keep that number at 10 or less for each game. As a pure observer, it seems like there has been much more of a gang rebounding mentality. The backcourt has been incredibly active on the boards and especially the defensive glass. It will be interesting to see if this continues.


Prohm has installed a different approach to ball screen defense this year. He is having Merrill Holden, Darrell Bowie or whomever is defending the screener hedge out hard on the ball handler coming off of the screen. Then, that big has to recover to defend his man who is rolling to the hoop, while the Cyclone originally guarding the ball handler gets back into position in front of his man.

This has been much more effective than the icing approach to ball screens Prohm had Jameel McKay and Georges Niang practicing last year. Many times, the ball handler would get going quickly off the screen with no resistance and blow past the Iowa State big waiting to corral them and cause trouble in the paint.

Additionally, with a hard hedge coverage, the ball handler is forced to make a choice. Threading the needle with a pass to the rolling big is risky and doesn’t happen often. The guard will have to reset himself once the Iowa State post retreats, or give up the ball to another teammate on the perimeter. This both takes time off the shot clock as it develops and takes the ball out of the hands of probably the best opposing players who would be coming off of the majority of ball screens.

This strategy has seemed to benefit the Cyclones so far. The ball handler is turning it over 25% of the time when a possession ends in a ball screen, which is up from 16% last year.

Pick-and-roll ball handlers or roll men are ending possessions on on 12.3% of half court possessions this year against the Cyclones as opposed to 17% last year, again with a higher turnover percentage for the offense.

Ball screens are one of the best sources of any offense for any team, so the more you can prevent them from happening, the better off you’ll be defensively.

Isolations and Post Ups

Gonzaga’s Karnowski was giving the Cyclones fits in the first half on post ups. In a Catch-22, if we brought a double team to help Holden, Karnowski would pass right over the top to a wide open 3-point shooter. If we left Holden on his own, Karnowski was getting fairly easy lefty hooks in the post.

Those open threes were destroying us, so I venture to say that Iowa State should have left Holden one on one. The key to that point is Holden needs to use his quickness advantage to make it difficult for the guard to make a pass into the post to the big fella. This means switching up which side of the seven footer that Holden is shading about every half second so the guard isn’t sure where to throw the ball. That way, Karnowski would have to establish position farther from the rim to catch the ball, where his percentages would be much lower and it would be fine to let him battle with Holden in single coverage. The difference between him catching at 7 feet and 12 feet is immense.

Other than this mammoth problem, Iowa State has done well in post ups (0.464 ppp) and isolations (0.585 ppp). Last season those numbers were post ups (0.802 ppp) and isolations (0.84 ppp). Hold off on judgment for these numbers due to the competition we’ve played, but they look fine for now.

All of these percentages and numbers may seem very close to each other, but even five percentage point boosts in multiple important defensive categories can lead to improvements two to four times per game. The Cyclones allowing a couple buckets less per game from these numbers can easily be the difference between winning and losing.

Mistakes and Coaching

These Synergy numbers do tell a general trend about how the Cyclones are doing defensively and what specific play types or areas they are struggling with. The caveat is that the data does not track what the root of the defensive problems are.

For example, watch this short clip against Indiana State.

The foundational problem with this defensive play is, “What in the world is Naz Mitrou-Long doing absolutely committing to help on a slow, plodding post who was never even close to having Deonte Burton beat at any point?!” The result is an easy kickout for a wide open three that should never have happened.

These are the mistakes that don’t show up in statistical data. In the data, it only shows as a spot up, catch and shoot 3-point make. The error can only be corrected by Prohm constantly emphasizing his defensive principles in practice, players watching film and correcting mistakes for the future. These intangible adjustments are why coaches get paid the big bucks. But this discussion is for another day.

We hope you enjoyed our statistical looks at Iowa State basketball today! We will hopefully have a few more of these later in the season. Let us know if there’s anything you’d like us to research specifically in the comments.