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Iowa State Basketball: Improving A Legendary Offense

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How can the Cyclones build on last year's offensive machine?

Reese Strickland-USA TODAY Sports

Last year, Iowa State fielded arguably the best Big 12 offense since around the turn of the millennium. According to KenPom's College basketball ratings, the Cyclone offense last year earned the best rating in the history of Big 12 teams since 2002.

By taking a quick glance at Iowa State's record, finish in the Big 12 hierarchy and Sweet Sixteen tournament run, your average hot take casual fan would take the Cyclones KenPom offensive rating and warp it into, "If they were that good, why didn't they win more games?" The short answer is that Iowa State was incredibly mediocre on defense. They ranked 102nd in KenPom's defense rankings. There are a variety of things you could blame for the Cyclones not approaching their potential on defense, but if you flip the script, at your next awkward office silence you can claim that despite the defense, the Georges Niang-led legendary offense actually carried the piss poor defense to Iowa State's 23 wins and Sweet Sixteen finish.

Offense is immensely more fun to talk about, so if you're into 2000's Missouri Valley Conference type slugfests and really get jacked up by watching highlights of offensive rebounds and five second calls, this is not your place and make sure to watch this video from the year 2000. Also, I ranted about Iowa State's defense here.

Strategy

Steve Prohm's squad started out almost every game with a Georges Niang isolation post up. Then, depending on how the game proceeded, the coaching staff would call 5-10 more straight up Niang isos. This resulted in a chunk of possessions that the Cyclones had each game being used up on the most basic play.

The greatness of the two time All-American made these plays effective. Niang shot 61% from 2-point range, which to be brutally honest, is completely mind blowing for an averagely athletic 6-8 four man who had to create countless buckets against his man from a one-on one-stand still. For comparison's sake, Perry Ellis only shot 55% from 2-point range and he did not shoulder nearly as many one-on-one opportunities as Niang. I know the eras were different without hand checking, but LaMarcus Aldridge, who is one of the NBA's best scorers from mid-range and in, only shot 57% from two point range in his last year at Texas. And he is a behemoth 7-footer. I can't give a more monumental compliment than that to Niang's game.

Anyway, back to the story. What is Prohm going to cook up without Niang to carry the load? The classic question. There isn't anyone on the roster that can be as efficient in one-on-one situations like Niang was. Putting Monte Morris in those same sets just won't work. Deonte Burton can chronically abuse bad matchups, but that would be specific situations with a slow big or a little guard that he can pummel into the paint. With a sturdy wing on him - I'm thinking a Taurean Prince type - Burton struggles. Granted, these possessions are only a handful per game, but to marginally improve the offense from last year, the red and gold squad cannot afford to take efficiency losses here. Isolations need to be replaced with alternatives.

With Morris, Burton, Matt Thomas and what seems like a healthy Naz Long all returning, Iowa State can (keyword: can) match and possibly eclipse last year's offensive ingenuity. Prohm and his assistants should be spending the summer conjuring up infinity different ways to get Morris into ball screens. If Monte can come off of a ball screen with an advantage over his man on as many possessions as possible, it will catapult Iowa State's offensive productivity.

The standard ball screen defense would be to have the big sit back and corral Morris, but Monte is quick enough that he can scoot right by most bigs for a layup. If the layup isn't there, and especially if even more help comes over, that's where it gets juicy. With Burton, Long and Thomas patrolling the 3-point line, leaving any of them is defensive suicide. Iowa State should hope that more help comes to Morris because open threes by any of those guys will be uber efficient possessions. If defenders stunt at Morris and recover on his pass to the perimeter. Burton, Long and even Thomas this past year showed that they can blow by a closeout to both keep the offense moving and to create opportunities in the paint.

If opponents choose to switch a big onto Morris, the big will get mixed while Monte dives into the paint. If they try to "ice" the ball screen, either Merrill Holden or Darrell Bowie will flip the screen at the last second and Monte will be able to get downhill at the big into the paint. If Morris is dominating the game, desperate teams will try to trap him coming off of a ball screen. In that case, Burton needs to set the ball screen and slip quickly so Morris can hit him to create a play in a four on three situation. Monte Morris with a head of steam, with a big on ice skates covering him heading into the paint is a goldmine for the Cyclone offense next year.

There are a bunch of different ways to get to this point offensively. Bringing the ball up the court on the sideline and moving into wing ball screens towards the middle can work, but these are predictable and defenses can load up against it. Many NBA teams have their bigs run from the block into a ball screen up high so that the defending big is trailing and not in position defensively. The Cyclones used that often last year with Jameel McKay. It is quite effective many times, but defenses can also sense when that action is coming.

Another simple trick is to have someone set a down screen for the big to run up into the ball screen. The defending big who starts down low, gets caught on the down screen and has to chase out of control to catch up to help position when his man sets the ball screen up high. Taking beginning actions a step further, Monte could start on the block and run off of a down screen up to the wing and if his man trails the down screen, continue the sprint to the top of the key to take a handoff, with his defender trailing him and turn the corner into the paint. There are a multitude of ways to get Morris an advantage on a ball screen - the key is not being predictable and hiding the real action from the defense before they get hit with it.

Now, as much as I'd want Prohm to do it, teams cannot run ball screens for the same guy on literally every single possession. There are a variety of other weapons on the floor that Prohm can utilize. Thomas and Long coming off of any kind of screen to the 3-point line are actions that defenses will be terrified of. Even if they don't create shots, just the threat of these long range snipers coming off of a screen to the arc will be a decoy to create over-help. This can be exploited by the screener slipping to catch and finish. At the very least, actions like these will open up larger driving gaps for a ball handler trying to create.

The threat of Burton is also an impressive weapon to have for Prohm. He is incredibly versatile because he can make plays off the dribble, can shoot threes and finish well inside. Maybe the biggest asset for the Cyclones is that he can play the two, three and four spots on offense. Being able to move a player around positionally without losing production is always a bonus.

The question the talking heads always ask when you lose a player of Niang's caliber is always phrased incorrectly. They ask, "Who is going to replace Niang's production?" That doesn't make sense. Iowa State is not going to be magically lose 20 points per game on offense because Georges is gone, especially with the talent they have coming back. The question should be, "Can next year's Cyclones be as efficient as Niang was with the possessions that he used?" That is the basis of why Monte Morris ball screens should be the focus of the offense. He is one of college basketball's best passers and creators. Around him are at least three of the best 3-point shooters in the conference.

Possessions where Monte is making a play in the paint or kicking out for threes are just as potent as Niang's rumbling artistry for buckets. That is where the production should be coming from and if it does, Iowa State's offense can match last year's unbelievable levels.

To put this into a mathematical perspective, Niang shot 39% on 3-pointers and 61% on 2-pointers last year. Both of those equal about 1.2 points per possession. If the Cyclones can turn those possessions into open threes for Thomas, Long and Burton, they need to shoot 40% from three to match Georges' efficiency at 1.2 PPP. Burton and Thomas shot well over that mark last year and Long was right around there when healthy.

Monte shot 54% from two last year, which is incredible for a point guard and that number was even suppressed because he took a healthy number of pull-up mid-rangers. I don't have the exact statistic, but he probably shot around 60% or so in the paint. A bunch of the other plays Monte made in the lane were lobs to McKay, who also shot 60% from the field. All of these options are equivalent to Georges' gaudy stats.

Obviously, running an offense is not that simple because there will be quite a few newcomers who need to mesh with the upperclassmen and they will use possessions as well. It is tough to tell how those outcomes will end up, but it's not as if Georges was shooting or Jameel was dunking on a majority of the plays either. The point is, Iowa State has many offensive bullets locked and loaded that can help the team score as well as they did last year.

Lineups

My guess would be a starting lineup of Morris, Long, Thomas, Burton and Holden. The only contributions from the nominal center, Holden, would be a mirror of the offensive role McKay played the past two seasons. He needs to finish plays, set solid screens and fight for offensive rebounds. There has been talk of Holden being able to shoot, but I don't buy it because the other four Cyclones on the floor are much better shooters than he is. When Darrell Bowie comes in, he should be filling the same spot as Holden.

As far as guards coming in off the bench, Donovan Jackson has been getting all of the hype. Both him and Morris have talked about being on the floor together, with Monte playing the two. That doesn't seem like the best option because of Monte's indispensable decision making. He should have the ball a huge chunk of the time while Jackson plays off the ball. It would be ideal if Jackson's playing time with Morris as the lead dog worked out in a similar way to Monte's playing time while DeAndre Kane was destroying the league. Morris used to spell Kane for a few minutes every half, but also play alongside him as well.

Nick Weiler-Babb can come off the bench and spell Thomas or Long and maybe even Burton on occasion. He has been touted as an athletic finisher and projects to be one of the better defenders on the team. I'm glad that he has three years remaining because I think he can turn into a really nice player. He'll most likely play pretty significant minutes because him and Jackson are the only guards that figure to get consistent time.

Jakolby Long and Solomon Young could step in and provide a blow to any of the starters besides the center. It would be good to get them experience early in their careers. If Simeon Carter and Cameron Lard show enough in the fall, they could spell Holden and Bowie. This would be a big, big development because other than those two bigs, there is again nothing proven behind them.

Iowa State has the potential to be a powerful team on the fun side of the court next season. Much will depend on the new chemistry playing without the three seniors from last year. Mixing in the younger guys could really be helpful, or the bench units will get blown out in their first few true tests and Prohm will have to abandon them and play the starters more minutes.

Either way, I know it's the off-season, but it's garbage that Iowa State got left off of the latest ESPN Way-Too-Early top 25 rankings. With all of the returning firepower the Cyclones have, it should be an easy pick. Many folks are saying Iowa State could be down next year, but I'm incredibly optimistic, and to me it's clear that they have all the pieces to do legendary things.