After a relatively tame opening day by NCAA Tournament standards, underdogs raised hell and destroyed brackets all over America yesterday. In an effort to stem the tide of the Tournament dark horses, Iowa State will look to defeat 2016's original Cinderella, the UALR Trojans, as they face their second double digit seed in as many rounds this afternoon.
How the Trojans Got Here
The University of Arkansas-Little Rock Trojans have had themselves quite a season. Prior to exerting their dominance on the Sun Belt Conference, in which they were both regular season and tournament champions, the Trojans proved themselves in the non-conference portion of the schedule as well. Chris Beard's squad won their first 10 games of the season before dropping their last game prior to conference play in Lubbock. A place Iowa State has also struggled to win in recent years.
In their 5 games against Kenpom top-50 opponents (adjusted for opponent and location), the Trojans went 4-1 including wins at Tulsa (tournament team), at San Diego State (should have been a tournament team) and at UT Arlington before the miraculous comeback against Purdue in Round 1 of the NCAA Tournament.
In their tilt with the Boilermakers, UALR got double digit point contributions from four of their starters en route to a 85-83 double OT victory. While they did score 85 points, it was far from an offensive masterpiece as the Trojans shot 42% from 2, 33% from long range and 57% from the charity stripe. They did, however, manage to attain higher rebounding percentages than the Boilermakers despite playing just two players taller than 6'5".
What Makes the Trojans Good?
There aren't many teams that feature as much experience as Iowa State, but UALR is one of those teams. The Trojans trotted out 10 players in their opening round game and all 10 are upperclassmen. Where it showed the most was in their ball security as they turned it over a mere 9 times, or 10.7% of possessions. To put that in perspective, Central Michigan led the NCAA in turnover percentage at 13.6%. These guys have a solid system and they're really good at it.
The Trojans rank 343/351 in adjusted tempo, per Kenpom, averaging a whopping 19 seconds per possession on the offensive end. Iowa State has struggled with teams that play this style in recent years and if shots aren't falling for the Cyclones, frustration could mount as the Trojans will continue to slow the game down and play keep-a-way.
Arkansas Little Rock also features the 26th ranked adjusted defense, 26th best 3-pt%, 2nd best steal percentage and a top-20 FG% defense. The prevailing opinion going into the Iowa State-Iona match up was that Iowa State was "Iona on steroids." The two teams played similar styles, but Iowa State had more talent. You could say the same about Little Rock and Virginia. They both play methodically, yet efficient offensively, and feature a stifling defense. The most comparable team the Clones have played this season would be the UNI Panthers.
Last Time Out
When the Cyclones last took the floor, fans finally got a tournament taste of the things that have made the last few regular seasons so great. While you could argue there were nervous moments, the reality is that Iowa State's win percentage never dropped below 92% in the second half of their opening round win over the upset-minded Iona Gaels.
Steve Prohm's starters all scored in double figures and Georges Niang was once again brilliant, after missing a couple early bunnies. When all was said and done, the Cyclones prevailed 94-81 behind 28 points from Niang and a masterful 20 point, 8 assist performance from Monte Morris.
What to Watch For
This game is going to be all about tempo and that factor may be even more important after the Trojans had to play an extra 10 minutes just two nights ago. Iowa State will look to get out and run early and often and attack before the Little Rock defense can get set. While the Trojans are decent on the offensive end, Iowa State would gain a considerable advantage with an increased number of possessions as fourth most efficient offense in the country. Makes, misses, turnovers, whatever, Iowa State should be looking to get out in transition.
Can the Cyclones continue to hit a solid percentage from the perimeter as they did in round one? Iowa State's starters shot 10-20 from downtown in the tournament opener, and they will have to get close to those same makes and percentage numbers to keep the Trojan defense honest and force them to extend to the 3-point line. If Iowa State can successfully spread them out, it will create space for dribble penetration and operation room for Niang and Jameel McKay on the blocks.
Iowa State will be forced to defend for extended possessions, especially if they are unable to clear the defensive glass. ISU has a tendency to give up baskets late in the shot clock as I'm sure you are all well aware. Many times it's a complete "what're you gonna do" type shot, but often times it's due to a defensive breakdown (frequently in a pick and roll situation) because maintaining that mental and physical focus for a full defensive possession is never easy. Especially with a bunch of guys that have never really excelled at it.
If Iowa State is able to string together some stops and maintain the offensive output from their first outing in Denver, the Cyclones just might be able to keep a comfortable distance between themselves and the Trojans similar to what we saw against the Gaels. The Trojans don't have the horses to keep up in an offensive match as they've scored more than 80 points just five times on the season, a feat the Cyclones achieved 20 times. But it all starts with getting those stops.
So Who Wins?
This Cyclone team seems much more mentally equipped to make a tournament run than teams of recent memory. There's a quiet confidence about the guys, and they seem determined to leave everything they have on the floor. After watching all of the drama unfold yesterday, I see Iowa State in a 'spoiler' role to fans with Cinderella hopes. There will be a few more nervous moments than round one, but not many.
Iowa State 74 - Arkansas-Little Rock 62
Tip: 5:10 p.m. CDT
TV: TNT (Andrew Catalon-pxp, Steve Lappas-color)
Radio: Cyclone Radio Network (John Walters-pxp. Eric Heft-Color)
Cyclones.com Game Notes: Available here.
Arkansas Little Rock SB Nation Site: Mid Major Madness