If Iowa State were to play a clone of themselves in the first round of the NCAA tournament, it would be the Iona Gaels. The two squads have a ton of similarities, with many you've already heard by now. Both teams can really fill it up on offense neither team puts people in shackles on defense, and neither team wants to bang down low and outwork their opponent for boards.
These themes ring familiar for Cyclone fans, and that's exactly what's keeping Steve Prohm up at night. Combine Iowa State's dominant offense with a know-one-really-knows-what-you'll-get defense and rebounding and it's a recipe that makes the Cyclones almost impossible to predict from night to night. Add to that an Iona club that has the exact same issues, mix them into the delicious athletic potpourri that we call a basketball game and you have no clue what that dish will turn into. It could be filet mignon. It could be rotten eggs. All that is certain is that someone else should taste test it just in case.
Either way, let's give this a shot.
There is a reason all the college basketball analysts talk exclusively about Iona's offense. Throughout the season they have played about as much D as the Cyclones have, except against exponentially worse competition in the MAAC. The Gaels concede more offensive rebounds than they bring in, just like Iowa State. However, they foul their opponents more than they get fouled much more than the Cyclones do.
One interesting thing to note is Iona blocks loads of shots, even though they don't have that much size. They have about six guys averaging in the neighborhood of one block per game. This stat matched with their incredibly mediocre KenPom defensive rating of 101.2 points per one hundred possessions (119th) gives a few hints as to their tendencies.
Number 1: Iona's guards are constantly getting beat off the dribble. Number 2: their guys are chasing down highlight reel swats to make up for it instead of playing solid defense. These low percentage gambles to be on SportsCenter get them out of position and they end up costing points in the form of offensive rebounds, fouls and dump downs to wide opens bigs.
This plays right into Iowa State's hands. The Cyclones don't take as many 3-pointers as a lot of teams do, and the extra drives that are mixed in are going to be incredibly positive for Prohm's offense. Georges Niang is going to rumble through the lane and Iona's blocking trend will become either lob city for Jameel McKay, pump fakes and easy buckets for Niang or an eventual kickout to an open shooter.
On defense, the obvious philosophy for Prohm would be to close out hard on 3-point shooters. Iowa State has done a good job of that all year. I imagine that close proximity to a defender wouldn't deter Iona's shooters and they would end up bricking quite a few closely contested threes.
If Iona's guards put it on the floor, the Cyclones need to force pull up jumpers and shots from awkward distances in the paint. Prohm's gameplan should be for Iowa State's guards to bluff at the driving ball handler instead of coming completely off of a shooter to help. Getting shredded by kickout threes would be devastating.
But once a Gael drives into the paint, the Cyclone rebounding monster rears its head, as more opponents are near the paint to inflict damage on the glass. Iowa State needs to finish stops with a rebound. The fact that Iona does not get very many offensive boards is incredibly convenient for the Cyclones, as Iowa State should be able to manufacture enough stops this way.
His name is A.J. English and he is a bad, bad man. The senior averages 22.4 points per outing, he shoots 37.4% from long range and has made more from deep than anyone on Iowa State. No one is even close to his 92 triples except Matt Thomas. English can stroke it from distance, but he is only shooting 42.9% overall, which can mean a couple things.
One is that he takes a ton of 3-pointers, which is holding down his percentage. English could also be shooting mid range jumpers and tough floaters, which would keep his percentage down. That would seem like a viable answer except those plays don't lend themselves to many fouls and he gets to the line in bunches, where he shoots 84.4%. No matter how you look at his scoring stats there seems to be one verdict: the kid is nasty and is going to be a handful for Iowa State.
English's scoring might not even be his greatest value to Iona. He was hurt in December and missed a few contests and the Gaels immediately fell into a slump, losing several games. The squad dearly missed English's playmaking on both ends of the floor. He averages 5 assists and 5 rebounds per game in addition to his scoring numbers. Iona's chances against the Cyclones run through A.J. English, and taking him away from Iona would be like taking Monte Morris away from.... (wait, wait KNOCK ON WOOD. But we need get to that later...)
Beyond English, the Gaels jack treys and make them at a high 37% clip as a team. Deyshonee Much, Isaiah Williams and Ibn Muhammad off the bench lead that attack. If Iowa State is lackadaisical in finding shooters and closing out, it's easy to imagine Iona making two or three bombs in an 11-2 or 9-0 run. Giving inferior teams life and confidence with those runs is never a good sign.
If the Cyclones defend the three, the Gaels can attack the rim and dump it down to Jordan Washington and Aaron Rountree on the inside.
This team is no slouch. Containing English should be the top of Prohm's priorities and hopefully he won't tear the Cyclone defense apart with drives like Buddy Hield did in the Big 12 Tournament. Iowa State better come out ready to play or they will give up easy points and find themselves behind real fast.
This whole Monte Morris shoulder issue is incredibly worrisome. No matter what people say about Niang's greatness and no matter how many accolades he gets, this is 100% true - Monte Morris is the most important player in leading Iowa State's offense to be top 3 in the country. There is a reason the kid plays 40 minutes per game.
His assist to turnover ratio is one of the best ever, he shoots a decent percentage from 3-point range and is great from inside the arc as a point guard. When a good shot needs to be created quickly at the end of the shot clock, Morris can do it. He gets a ton of hockey assists that don't go on the stat sheet by putting his teammates in advantageous positions to make positive plays on offense. Without him, the offense would still be good, but not even close to what it is now.
With that being said, Morris not being 100% is a problem and hurts Iowa State tremendously. Playing with a shoulder problem wouldn't hamper your game much on defense or simply dribbling. But certain types of passes and especially Morris' shooting will suffer.
Iona is going to go under Morris ball screens and dare him to stop behind and shoot it. Prohm has coached his screeners well to turn and rescreen when this happens. Monte is good at finding the cracks in the defense on the rescreen, but the opportunities to get into the paint get smaller. A big piece of this game's puzzle is whether Monte can shoot, and if he can't very well, can he still effectively use ballscreens to get into the lane?
Let's hope Morris will be able to come through, and I think the Cyclones are incredibly confident he will. If it turns out he can't, the offense will stagnate and Iowa State will struggle to produce at normal levels. Thank the ghost of Johnny Orr that if that happens, Prohm can easily run an entire offense through Niang with spot up shooters all around and McKay on the back line for lobs.
I'm not going to make any predictions for fear of what might happen, but I will say the Cyclones have proven over the course of the season that they are a better team than Iona.
But again, they were also much better than UAB last year. After all the talk in the off season and focus on redemption, specifically at the NCAA tournament, fans should be confident in Iowa State's chances. The upperclassmen did not take that loss lightly and will definitely play with the necessary grit, fortitude and will. That simple fact combined with their skill level is enough to feel good about Iowa State's chances on Thursday afternoon.