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Iowa State Basketball: Improving the Defense

Reese Strickland-USA TODAY Sports

Much has been made about what starting lineups Iowa State will trot out next year, who will get minutes and how they will play. This article will be an analysis of what lineups and strategies will best suit Iowa State strictly from a defensive perspective. This is not an end-all be-all because an abundance of lineup configurations and defensive techniques depend on matchups, so Steve Prohm could easily change these game by game.


As far as philosophy goes, Prohm generally tries to prevent drive and kicks for wide open threes by having defenders on three point shooters stick to their man instead of helping, which leaves on-ball perimeter defenders more on an island than other techniques. This resulted in Iowa State not giving up too many threes, but getting shredded on drives.

This is a solid philosophy if three things are true: 1) Your guards and wings can constantly stay in front of their guy. 2) You have a beastly rim protector or two to come over and extinguish attacks at the basket. 3) Your whole team can fly through flawless rotations off of the drives.

Last year's team had none of those qualities. There are a multitude of reasons why Iowa State was so poor on defense last year that included a lack of depth, below average defensive players exhibiting below average effort and partly the philosophy outlined above.

The Cyclones could do much better, in my opinion, using the pack line defense exhibited best by Tony Bennett's Virginia teams. This school of thought relies heavily on over-helping. For example, if an opposing guard is at the top of the key, the other perimeter defenders are positioned in the driving lanes on either side of the on-ball defender, so the offense not only can't exploit the gap in between, but it doesn't even look like there is space to drive through. Here is a diagram to visualize the differences between Prohm's D and the pack line.

The pack line tries to prevent penetration by cutting off gaps, which causes drive and kick situations for the offense. It can also be beaten by quick screens and an overdose of effective ball movement off of those screens. The pack line can at times can be vulnerable to offensive rebounds because all defenders are in over-help positions and have to scramble back to their man to block out when the shot goes up.

In Iowa State's case, the guards had a devastating year trying to keep up on drives and the bigs were awful at helping off of penetration. The pack line would prevent many of those beelines to the paint and force contested drive and kick jumpers. It would take a great deal of work because Cyclone defenders would have to move farther to help positions on every single pass and every single drive as well as scurry a longer distance back to their man for box outs.

It is debatable whether Prohm's team has the personnel or the mindset to pull off the pack line defense, but it would be worth a try in the off season and early fall practice for the coaching staff. They can see if it improves the collective product even just a tiny bit and if not, practically ANYTHING would beat the debacle that last year's team showed defensively every night.

Beyond the general defensive philosophies, I don't think Prohm will press like many have been saying. There still isn't enough depth behind the established players to press for forty minutes. Prohm can't run his guys in and out of the game in waves like Bob Huggins. Besides that, Deonte Burton, Matt Thomas and Naz Mitrou-Long recovering from his hip problems aren't the type of players who are going to feast on turnovers while picking up dudes full court. Pressing for any length of time will not benefit Iowa State.

Last year Prohm tried to "ice" ball screens a lot of the time. This means the guard who is getting screened puts his body above the screener forcing his man (who has the ball) away from the screen. The Cyclone big who is defending the screen sets up below the screen in the direct path that the Iowa State guard is sending the opposing ball handler (Here is a clip to show what I mean). Iowa State did alright using this strategy, but would get burned at times when the ball handler would get downhill and beat Jameel McKay, Georges Niang or Burton. It will be interesting to see if Prohm stays with this strategy using Merrill Holden and Darrell Bowie.

Where Iowa State really got roasted last year was two fold. Opposing guards would halfway or fully get by Iowa State defenders on a drive and any Cyclone posts that came over to help only made lazy swipes at the ball or fake-contested the shot in the paint. Yes, it's true that Niang, Burton and McKay couldn't afford to pick up fouls, but they also did a substandard job of providing any resistance.

Not only that, and this is the other part of the problem, when that shot did go up, Iowa State did not block out and come down with the rebound enough times to field a defense it could rely on. That is partially a depth problem and partially an effort problem. There were no viable players behind last year's front court to absorb any minutes, so Niang, Burton and McKay couldn't foul, but also weren't pushed to try hard all the time on defense by someone looking to get minutes behind them. In other words, they could take a few defensive possessions off knowing not a soul was getting off of that bench to replace them.

This year, there should be plenty of competition and enough depth in the front court where the guys who show the best effort are going to play and if they pick up quick fouls, someone will sub in for them. This will be especially true if Romello White (who is a 6'9" four-star recruit in the 2016 class and is taking a visit to Ames over Memorial Day) joins the squad. It won't take much for the frontcourt to improve on defense next year, but if these new faces contributed only few more stops per game it would make a difference in the win/loss column.


The most obvious starting lineup seems to be Monte Morris at the point, Naz Mitrou-Long manning the 2, Matt Thomas at the 3, Deonte Burton playing a hybrid 4 and Merrill Holden at center (Or possibly Romello White). In terms of that lineup, Deonte Burton has gotten the most heat for his defense (deservedly so) last year, due to Iowa State's lack of depth. Burton was forced to compete on the blocks with brutish Big 12 posts. The problem is that he is only 6'4" and has trouble giving enough effort all of the time. That does not lend itself to positive outcomes. Burton got pounded on the block and on the glass by Big 12 foes.

The Cyclones will have the same depth issues in the front court next season and Burton will be called upon again to at least occasionally battle with bigs. Teams who play smaller or who don't have an offensive threat at the 4 should be fine for Burton to match up with. Although, in the past Burton has struggled to contain quicker guards as well.

Beyond Burton, Thomas is an asset on the defensive end simply for the fact that he can match up with a number of different positions. You wouldn't describe him as a great defender, but he can guard one through three and can even pick up smaller fours every once in a while. The Cyclones should be able to switch seamlessly among Morris, Naz and Thomas unless there is a bruising small forward in the West Virginia mold. Morris and Naz aren't excellent defenders either, but the drop off from Thomas to those two is less than the strategic benefits gained from being able to switch. This will help Steve Prohm's squad on ball screen help and off-ball rotations.

At the center spot, it is tough to tell how Merrill Holden will do against Big 12 level competition down low. Either he or Darrell Bowie will have to anchor the Cyclone defense. Big 12 front courts won't be as brutal as last season with the departures of guys like Perry Ellis, Devin Williams and Prince Ibeh. Holden and/or Bowie will be dealing with Jonathan Motley, Khadeem Latin and Landen Lucas. These players can most certainly be effective, but they are not as good as those who've moved on.

Holden and Bowie's biggest contributions defensively will simply be putting in maximum effort as well as potent help defense and rebounding. At times last year, Jameel McKay's effort on defense was below mediocre and as the leader of Iowa State's defense, it really hurt the Cyclones. McKay would blatantly not box out his man or not come over to help prevent an easy layup or even over-rotate to attempt a highlight reel block while giving up an easy put back. Iowa State's two graduate transfers need to be solid in their decision making on rotations and box out ferociously on every play. That more than anything else will improve Iowa State's defense.

At times last year Iowa State played stretches with Morris, Thomas, Nader, Burton and Niang. This combination would have battled for the best offensive lineup on any school in the country, but.... they couldn't stop anyone at a reasonable rate to justify extended minutes.

The same will follow this year. Prohm will not be able to go super small with Morris, Jackson, Naz, Thomas and Burton. Given the right situation, they could pull off these four guards and swap Burton for Holden or Bowie. That would take arguably the worst defensive player off the floor and replace him with a presumably better defender and more beef in the middle. These four guard lineups are the new toy fad for Iowa State fans to talk about and I will address them more in a later offensive piece, but any combination of five that doesn't include Burton will be better on D.

If that is indeed Iowa State's starting lineup, then off the bench we will see Donovan Jackson, Nick Weiler-Babb, possibly Jakolby Long and Solomon Young and then some combination of Bowie, Cameron Lard and Simeon Carter. From what I have heard, Babb is very good on defense. If that is the case, then an optimal defensive lineup would be Morris, Naz, Thomas, Babb and Holden if the opponent is only playing with one big.

If the opponent has two bonafide posts in the game, then the best defensive lineup would be Holden and Bowie matching on the blocks, Babb at the three and either Thomas or Naz at the two with Morris at the point. I'm not well versed in Babb's defensive repertoire, but it would be great if he could match up with any guard or wing no matter who the opponent puts out there.

Jackson and maybe Long will most likely be able to hold their own on defense and if Young sees the floor at all, he will be an energy guy. If Carter improves this summer and Lard can earn a few minutes, it will only be to hold down the fort while Holden, Bowie and Burton catch their breath.

For the future of the program, it will be important for guys like Jackson, Long, Young, Carter and Lard to get experience this year. After next year, Iowa State will lose no less than six seniors. All of them are slated to play a ton of minutes this year. Prohm needs to learn what he has behind all of those seniors so that before the 2017-18 season comes around he can fill positional needs with scholarships and have a base knowledge of what each of the returners brings to the floor.

Prohm has plenty of defensive issues to deal with during the off season. Iowa State doesn't need to be dominant on that end, but they do need to make moderate gains to be effective. Even incremental improvements could launch the Cyclones into competition for a Big 12 title. The offense will be fine. It will be as dominant, if not better than last year's, so any upgrade on defense will be a welcome addition next season.