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Film Breakdown: Iowa Defense

How Iowa’s lack of effort and execution on defense could lead to easy offense for the Cyclones

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

Iowa State has built a nice, national reputation for its fast-paced, offensive style of basketball. But for every endorsement, a snark-filled criticism about their lack of defense soon followed. But this season, the Cyclones are filling driving lanes, making decisive rotations and contesting 3-pointers — a welcome change from the matador defense we saw in the Georges Niang era.

The Cyclones’ opponent on Thursday, the Iowa Hawkeyes, are experiencing their own defensive issues this season. Fran McCaffery’s passive bunch currently rank 176th in defensive efficiency, according to KenPom. Even Hoiberg’s most defensively challenged teams never ranked worse than 126th. That isn’t to say, “Hey, our defense sucks less than yours.” It’s to point out just how bad Iowa’s defense has been in its nine games to start the year. That lack of defense culminated in a 98-89 home loss last Saturday to the same Nebraska-Omaha Mavericks team that the Cyclones beat Monday 91-47.

Unfortunately, without a Big Ten Plus subscription, I wasn’t able to unearth the video to figure out how the Mavericks dissected the Iowa defense. But we do have other sources, as the Hawkeyes have surrendered 91, 92 and 100 points in single games this season. Let’s take a look at a few sequences from their 92-78 loss to Notre Dame to see how Iowa State may be able to take advantage of the Hawkeyes’ (lack of) D.

Secondary Break

Source: ESPN

In this clip, Notre Dame is pushing the ball off of an Iowa miss. Iowa does a good job of getting back, forcing Notre Dame into their secondary break. We see Ryan Kriener and Nicholas Baer communicate as Kriener takes Notre Dame big man Bonzie Colson and Baer takes the trailer. But this is where no amount of coaching can save the Hawks. They’re in position to make Notre Dame run an offensive set, but Baer bites on a shot fake, immediately putting him in catch-up mode.

The trailer, Rex Pflueger, makes a nifty dribble behind his back. Baer reaches, and he’s now out of the play. His teammate, Jordan Bohannon, is responsible for help, but because he doesn’t want to leave his man wide open for three, he decides to go for the strip. He’s unsuccessful, and it’s now 2-on-1 with Kriener as the last line of defense. Pfleuger makes the easy pass, Brady Ellingson is too late to cut off the passing lane, and Colson gets the easy basket and the foul.

How Iowa State Can Take Advantage: The Cyclones will look to push off misses and makes. With Holden/Bowie/Young rim-running, that often leaves Deonte Burton as the trailer. We’ve seen Iowa State try to isolate Burton at the top of the key and take advantage of his athleticism and skill over bigger, less agile players. This sets up nicely, as Burton should be able to put pressure on the middle of Iowa’s defense with his ability to shoot, handle and drive. Unlike the clip above, I expect him to either get all the way to the rim or look to the corners for shooters.

Pick and Roll

Source: ESPN

OK, so we’re going to pick on Baer a little bit, although Peter Jok’s effort here is less than optimal. If I were an Iowa fan, this clip would be especially frustrating. Not pictured, we see good help from Isaiah Moss as Bohannon gets beat off the dribble. Moss then recovers and Notre Dame is left with six seconds left on the shot clock. Good defensive possession, right? Almost.

Notre Dame’s Steve Vasturia takes the pick from Colson, but it’s a bad screen. Jok easily slides through and is in position to stop the ball. Except his teammate, Baer, has decided to hedge. OK, so not perfect, but I can understand why each made their decision. Vasturia now has five seconds left with two Iowa defenders on him. An aggressive trap here likely forces Vasturia to make a difficult cross-court pass with the clock running out. But Baer reaches, and instead of forcing Vasturia back to Jok, lets Vasturia find a driving lane to the outside. Ellingson provides decent support, but he has no chance in another 2-on-1 situation in the paint. Moss is too late on the rotation, and Colson gets another easy bucket.

How Iowa State Can Take Advantage: We’re going to see a lot of pick and roll from the Cyclones, although they haven’t been as effective this season without Niang as the screener. We saw more of this action with Morris and Burton against Omaha, and I expect to see that again on Thursday. It’s up to Morris to make the right read, and with Iowa showing a lot of inexperience, he should have an easier time finding driving lanes than he did against Cincinnati.

Dribble Drive

Source: ESPN

This is an upperclassman with superior athletic ability abusing a true freshman. Colson presents a screen at the top of the key, but as we saw before, he’s not really interested in setting a solid screen here. I’m not even sure Bohannon knows he’s there. Matt Farrell makes a small effort to set up Bohannon to go left, but this isn’t exactly Chris Paul. He then accelerates past a flat-footed Bohannon. Once again, Ellingson is the last line of defense and does a decent job of forcing Farrell to make a tough shot. But with no rim protection, Farrell is able to square to the basket and make the 6-foot runner off the glass.

How Iowa State Can Take Advantage: Morris should be salivating at the thought of Bohannnon trying to match up 1-on-1. Bohannon has shown some offensive promise, but his defense is a huge liability. Morris should be able to get into the lane at will using his hesitation moves and physical maturity to take advantage of Bohannon’s lack of lateral quickness. The Hawkeyes have no true rim protector, which should allow Morris to finish at the hoop or find an open shooter.

Press Break

Source: ESPN

Iowa has used a three-quarters court press throughout McCaffery’s tenure, and it’s often been successful with long defenders like Aaron White and Jarrod Uthoff disrupting at the point. This type of press succeeds when you have a rim protector to allow the wing defenders to be aggressive, but the Hawkeyes don’t have 7-footer Adam Woodbury to clog up the lane anymore.

In the clip above, the press isn’t as aggressive as previous Iowa teams. Notre Dame casually tosses the ball back and forth without Christian Williams forcing the action. That’s OK as this press can help kill clock and take the offense out of their comfort zone. But as Notre Dame gets it into the front court, we see another breakdown. There appears to be some confusion between freshman Cordell Pemsl, Ellingson and Baer on the back end of the zone. It isn’t pretty, but it looks as if Pemsl and Ellingson figure things out. While Ellingson settles back into the middle, Baer overcompensates and attempts to cover the rim. With Ellingson already there (and still confused), two Hawkeyes are now covering one Irish player. That leaves a wide-open shooter in the corner, and he promptly buries it.

How Iowa State Can Take Advantage: Iowa looks like an inexperienced team that doesn’t know its roles or responsibilities. If Iowa presses the Cyclones, I expect the Cyclones to attack using Burton in the middle of the press break or Morris beating the press off the dribble. Notre Dame wasn’t being aggressive, and the young Iowa team was still lost. If Iowa State can play fast without being out of control, they could get some easy shots at the hoop should Iowa try to press.

The inexperience of Iowa’s roster is a huge factor in their poor defensive performances, but what should be more concerning for Iowa fans is the lack of lateral quickness. Inexperience can be remedied with playing time and practice reps, but lateral quickness is difficult to develop without good genes and top-notch training. As we saw in the clips above, sometimes the Hawkeyes are actually in decent position. But their athleticism, or lack thereof, doesn’t allow them room to make any mistakes.

The last time these two teams faced off in Iowa City, the Cyclones went on a big run in the second half, getting fast-break layups and transition 3-pointers. This year, I’d like to see Iowa State run more deliberate offense and force the Hawkeyes to play defense for long stretches. That doesn’t mean I want to see Iowa State/Cincinnati again (trust me, I don’t), but some patience on the offensive end could result in easy layups and dunks. This is especially important in the first half as players adjust to the intensity and flow of an in-state rivalry game. As much as I’d love to see Naz Mitrou-Long silence the crowd with a barrage of threes, I’d rather see a senior-laden Iowa State team execute with precision against an inexperienced, undermanned Iowa squad.