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Iowa State Basketball: Disconnected?

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NCAA Basketball: Iowa State at Iowa Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports

In January of 2016, David Blatt was dismissed by the eventual NBA champion Cleveland Cavaliers. It seemed inevitable because the best player in the world had no faith, confidence, or trust in his coach. He contradicted him on the court and off the court.

A change at coach sparked a “buy-in” from LeBron James which resulted in harmonious play from the balance of the team. Most importantly, stars in their own right, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love, settled in to roles around LeBron to make the team more efficient and dangerous.

The Cleveland example is an extreme one, and is centered around a transcendent player. But, it points out how a disconnect between players and coaches can be detrimental and a “buy-in” can bring out the potential of the talent assembled. It isn’t a perfect example because Cleveland was winning even with the disconnect, but it was clear that the aura around the team and efficiency on the court was not at an optimal level.

In my humble opinion, Iowa State is suffering from “disconnect.” It is hard to describe — a know it when you see it type of thing. I see it on display in every game. Our extremely talented basketball writers have and will continue to point out the fundamental flaws and adjustments that need to be made to improve this season. After a devastating loss to Iowa, I wanted to add an esoteric touch to their lexicon of analysis.

The Manifestation

A disconnect between players and a coach can be stripped down to the players failing or deciding not to listen. I don’t mean just hearing — I mean listening by implementing what has been imparted. I am not present at practice or with the team, but there are signs on the court that one can point to in order to identify when this may be taking place.

  • Energy level — There will be a lack of effort in key situations, usually in big moments, in answer to momentum shifts, and to start games.
  • Court awareness — This is how I describe “knowing what to do.” For example, handling a press with fundamentals, seeing a defensive shift, reacting to a set.
  • Ball sharing — Simply the number of passes made and the type of passes based on court vision, knowledge and trust of your teammates, and focus on getting a bucket instead of “who” gets the bucket.
  • Individual play — Selfishness on display in all aspects of the game.

Each of these take different forms and some may be more manifest than others, but coaches, and particularly Steve Prohm, do not coach these attributes. Instead, they coach each attribute in the positive within their system of play. When the negative manifestation of these elements rears its head, it is a good bet that the players have no trust or “buy-in” to the coach’s teaching.

“Buying-in” is simply a dedication to and execution of the coaching that is provided. Certainly, during the Hoiberg era, the Iowa State teams exhibited a high level of “buy-in” to the system. It is clear in the non-con schedule that this year’s Iowa State team is devoid of that key element.

One does not have to examine the entirety of last night’s game to get a sense of what I am talking about.

A few examples.

Less than a minute in to the game, ISU is confronted with a 1-2-2, 34 court press... The same press utilized by Iowa State. There are four seniors on the floor. First, note the lackadaisical way Monte Morris brings the ball over the line. Next, notice the spacing between Deonte Burton and Morris. Too close. The defense does not have to run or shift their position to defend the reversal.

Next, look at Matt Thomas and Naz Mitrou-Long. They float to their wide positions and wait. Where is the hard cut to the top of the key for the easy press-breaking pass? When Burton sends it to Morris, Thomas should be breaking hard to the top of the key. Or, Burton should be cutting through the press for the easy delivery on the break.

Instead, we see players waiting for an individual to break the press. Which is where the heart of the problem lies. There is no doubt in my mind that Coach Prohm has instructed this team on how to break this press. It appears that the players are doing their own thing, getting to “their” spot on the floor instead of focusing on team basketball.

Off an Iowa score, ISU runs a called set. It works to perfection — only it doesn’t.

Morris narrows his vision and looks for his shot first. He does not see Holden roll to the basket wide open. That is how the play is designed. Instead, he pulls his dribble and looks too late after realizing he can’t beat 3-on-1 defense.

Again, this is emblematic of the disconnect. There is no way Prohm called this play to be a drive or 3-pointer by Morris. It was designed to do exactly what you see, but instead the player is playing his own game. It isn’t a team game, and it isn’t a game that was coached.

So, I looked at Iowa to contrast. Iowa is not a good team. But, they are bought in to their system. Here, you see the end of an ill-advised drive. Instead of forcing a shot, the ball is kicked out inartfully for a reset.

Upon the reset, the pick is set and the roll is covered so option 2 is chosen. Dribble penetration, cut off, kick. Dribble penetration, cut off, kick. The extra pass nets a wide open three that opens a gash Iowa State could not recover from.

The “buy-in” is obvious. Run the set, look for the drive, make the extra pass until an open shot is found. There isn’t a ton of player movement, but the ball is moved efficiently until the right shot is found, regardless of who the player is. That is what is being taught there, and that is what is hard to defend.

Iowa State has better players in almost all of those positions on the floor. But they lack rhythm and cohesiveness in creating the shot. ISU’s offense is designed on many plays to do the same thing. Test the dribble penetration and kick, test it, kick, and reset.

Too often, in fact, almost all of last night, the dribble penetration stays in the hands of a player intent on scoring, outside of the flow of the offense, and results in a contested shot. Instead of working within the system, ISU works for their own looks with only token reliance on the design of the called plays.

On this last clip, the ball and player movement is solid. Prior to the start of the clip, the ball had moved three times. Morris penetrates, it is cut off, he kicks and it is covered. The ball is reversed and there is still 11 seconds left on the shot clock. Donovan Jackson penetrates, but does so with the sole intent of making an individual play. He forces a bad shot and Iowa runs out for another score.

If you can watch the point at where Jackson picks up his dribble, you will notice that he has both wing players open for a three. If he kicks to the left, the wing player will have a drop down to Young in the post. Plenty of time to execute one, maybe two more passes for an open look.

Fixable?

Yes. It is fixable. ISU has gotta-be-me-itis right now. They are playing their own individual games, versus the game the coach had lain out for them. Their eyes are down and possessions end with the player that decides he wants to score as opposed to the player the defense fails to cover. They have enough talent to make that work against lesser opponents, but results in nights like last night against most major conference teams.

I could show a dozen clips from the first 10 minutes of the game that illustrate the point. Sprinkled in are some moments of brilliance.

Completely lacking is leadership.

Last year, Niang bought in and led the others to do the same. This year, there are four senior leaders. One needs to decide to lead.

The leadership can come from the head coach, but it takes a full team buy-in to make that work. At present, what is being coached is not being executed. There is a disregard for the instruction and a significant amount of distrust between the players and coaches and among the players themselves.

ISU needs a leader. They need someone to execute within the system and push the rest of the team to do the same. If they are able to do that, to begin listening, then there is more than enough talent on this team to win many conference games. But, if the current trend continues, there will be many more nights like last night for Iowa State.