It doesn't matter how you look at Friday's game for the Cyclones. It is going to be tough. Incredibly tough.
The Virginia Cavaliers are a fantastic basketball team by any stretch of the imagination. They are ranked number one overall in KenPom's college basketball rankings right now. They are sixth overall on offense and fourth overall on defense. This team gets it done at elite levels on both sides of the floor.
The Cavs took some bad losses early on in conference play, dropping games on the road to Virginia Tech (if you want the feeblest of stats to hang your hat on, ISU destroyed that same Hokie team by 22 points in November), Georgia Tech and Florida State.
Since that last loss in Tallahassee on January 17th, the Cavaliers have only lost three games and none of them have been by more than four points. During that stretch they have only allowed their opponent to score 70 or more twice. By contrast, they have held their six of their opponents during that stretch to 50 points or less. Yes, 50, that is not a typo. Tony Bennett's team is really, really good.
This mountain is not going to be an easy summit to reach for the Cyclones, but that doesn't mean Virginia cannot be conquered.
Virginia's offense is an anomaly in modern college basketball because they do not do a couple things that every other team is doing more and more of. Those are shooting 3-pointers and running ball screens. Virginia's shot selection normally has a very low dose of threes and the Cavs run a ton of off-ball sets for their guards to gain advantages on the catch that allow them to make plays. These concepts are slowly fading away in basketball, but are used very well by Tony Bennett's squad.
Malcolm Brogdon's offensive game reminds me of an altered version of Buddy Hield. The Virginia guard can shoot it from anywhere on the floor. As far as his range goes, he can come off of any type of screen for catch and shoot threes, he can pull it off the dribble from any spot, and he can create his own shot in one-on-one situations. However, he doesn't shoot as high of a percentage as Hield does and isn't a threat to bury a 3-point dagger at literally any moment like Hield, but they are quite similar.
Matt Thomas will likely cover Brogdon for the majority of the game. Thomas needs to get through screens to force the ACC Player of the Year off of the 3-point line and into help defense inside the arc. From there, Iowa State needs to do their best to make him convert tough shots. This is infinitely easy to say and mighty hard to execute.
Knock on wood, but the Cyclones have done an amazing job of playing solid defense these past two games without getting into foul trouble. That needs to continue for Iowa State to have a shot and it will be difficult to accomplish with Anthony Gill roaming around the paint. Gill is effective finishing around the rim and has a solid post up game. He can face up for a jumper, create separation for a jump hook or if the defender isn't big enough, bang the poor guy under the rim with a dribble for an easy layup.
Gill will most likely be checked by Jameel McKay, but the Virginia big man is averaging less than one assist per game. My guess is that Steve Prohm will see how McKay does one on one in the post early in the game. If he's getting roasted for buckets, then ISU will bring a double team. That could be an advantage for the Cyclones because it's doubtful that Gill is adept at making quick decisions out of a double. If he can make effective passes, it could be deadly for Iowa State though because Brogdon is shooting 40% from long range and point guard London Perrantes is shooting a silky 48%.
Perrantes is a heck of a point guard who absolutely strokes 3-pointers, doesn't turn it over and can make plays off the bounce. Other than Brogdon, Gill and Perrantes, no one that gets minutes should scare Iowa State, but they can absolutely make plays if the Cyclones aren't locked in.
It's not a secret that Virginia plays at a pace that is the slowest in the country, but that shouldn't hamper the Cyclones too much. It takes away a few possessions per game and if Iowa State is actually the worse team, as the statistics say they are, less possessions would actually be an advantage. Beyond that, Steve Prohm's squad ground out long possessions all game against UALR and weren't hurt by the pace.
Defensive rebounding is always a huge factor in Iowa State's play. The difference between UALR and Virginia is that Little Rock punted fighting for O-boards to get back on defense, while Virginia can pound on the glass. Boxing out and securing defensive rebounds is going to an enormous factor and Iowa State needs to attack that facet of the game with the grit and energy they've showed lately.
The Cyclones have been clicking on all cylinders in the last two games. One of the biggest bonuses that Iowa State has received is simply that Monte Morris' shoulder doesn't seem to be holding him back at all. He shot the ball effectively the past two games, and when both Iona and Little Rock went under ball screens, he stopped behind the screen and rained fire from long range (start at 0:45 in this clip).
It will be very interesting to see if UVA's coaching staff chooses to go under ball screens with Morris even though he has proven that he can punish teams that employ that tactic. Virginia has hard hedged ball screens quite a bit throughout the year, but if Georges Niang is setting the screen and Morris can find him around the hedge, Georges will be in a Golden State Warriors Draymond Green 4-on-3 type situation that will be devastating to Virginia. Even if Niang doesn't receive the ball, Monte will find the open guy to create an upper hand for the Cyclones.
To complement that development, Niang has already been playing like the all time great that he is. Nobody from Iona or UALR had a chance at stopping him.
Some analysts have suggested that Malcolm Brogdon will stick to Niang throughout this game, but that creates a couple of advantages for Iowa State. The first is that Georges could take Brogdon down to the dinner table on the block where he would feast on buckets over the smaller guard. The other is if Brogdon is essentially face guarding Niang and not leaving him, it opens up that much more space for Morris/McKay pick and rolls with Thomas and Nader waiting to gun wide open threes if anyone helps.
We'll have to see if Tony Bennett deploys the ACC Defensive Player of the Year on Iowa State's second all time leading scorer, but it's doubtful that he does for long stretches.
As a team, Virginia plays a pack line defense, which was well-described in detail here. Essentially, the pack line tries to prevent drives at all cost while forcing contested threes. If Morris can jet around ball screens and force deep help from off-ball defenders, it can lead to wide open 3-pointers for Iowa State's best shooters. Coach Bennett might make an exception and have Thomas's defender stick to him, but that exposes more driving lanes for Morris and Niang.
Another fascinating point is the fact that Niang's drives rarely are blow-bys to the rim, but rather rumbling changes of direction into the paint for him to manufacture an easy shot. These drives will make it LOOK like the defender does not need help from the pack line because Niang isn't blowing by anyone. In reality, if no help comes, Georges will get to his spots for terrific shots.
Iowa State can gain offensive advantages, but they will not be easy to come by. Virginia is as disciplined of a defensive team as they come and they don't give up easy buckets. The Cyclones will have to match that discipline and be methodical about creating shots out of the minuscule creases and favorable matchups they find. Let's all hope the regulars keep shooting it like they have.
You couldn't pay me to make a prediction after the result against Iona, so I'm obviously not putting a score down.
The cold hard facts for the Cyclones are that they need to play solid D like they have the last two games while maintaining the same aggressiveness on the defensive glass. That ,combined with Iowa State's fantastic offense burying shots after exploiting the pack line defense, will give them a great chance to punch their Elite Eight ticket.
Whether Prohm's squad can actually accomplish those tasks for 40 minutes is anyone's guess.