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Analyzing Iowa State’s Strategy Against West Virginia

The problem Steve Prohm faced and why he chose correctly.

Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images

As Iowa State was preparing for the West Virginia game, head coach Steve Prohm was really facing an impossible conundrum when trying to game plan.

On paper, the Mountaineers were better than the Cyclones in almost every important facet of the game. West Virginia rebounds the basketball at a higher clip, especially on the offensive end. They get to the free throw line many times more per game than Iowa State and even shooting 66% from the line as a team is a fantastic trip on offense. Their defensive ratings are better than the Cyclones and that includes forcing over 20 turnovers per game. The one place you might imagine Iowa State had an advantage was shooting threes, but those percentages were almost identical coming into the game.

What kind of magic was Prohm supposed to come up with to win the game?

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Offensive Game Plan Options

Slowing the game down, taking care of the ball against the press and employing a half court attack was one choice Prohm had and that would have been disastrous for the Cyclones.

Think about all the ways WVU would have enjoyed an advantage in that kind of game. The Cyclones have struggled to generate consistent offense in the half court and Bob Huggins has the personnel to switch every screen without sacrificing on ball defense. If Huggins didn’t want to switch, he could have run his guards under every ball screen and dared the Cyclones to pull up from three behind the screens. Monte Morris has shown that he isn’t adept at raining fire in those spots. Either strategy would have forced Iowa State into horribly inefficient and stagnant isolation sets.

No matter how many called sets Prohm has or doesn’t have in his back pocket, if the defense can switch everything and you can’t clearly take advantage of those matchup issues after the switch, you will not be successful on the offensive end. Iowa State does not have the personnel to punish West Virginia with mismatches.

Additionally, if Huggins knew Iowa State was going to slow the game down and take care of the ball, he would have no trouble sending 3 guys to the offensive glass. The Cyclones would have been pounded on the boards and would have hemorrhaged points on put backs.

If Prohm decided that a half court game while meticulously taking care of the ball was his best bet and if Iowa State only turns the ball over say 8 times in a half court slugfest instead of 16 times, what do you think would have come of those 8 extra possessions?

Those 8 additional trips where the good guys get a shot up would have come against a switchy defense killing any offense the Cyclones run and would lead to trash shots trying to fruitlessly exploit mismatches. Iowa State would have maybe gotten 6-8 points out of those extra possessions.

Now, the extra 6-8 points cannot simply be added to Iowa State’s score. You have to take into account the rest of the 50-60 possessions in the half court where the Cyclones would have had trouble scoring. The rest of Iowa State’s possessions would have produced buckets at such a lower clip, to at least partially or totally negate the 6-8 point advantage from not turning the ball over.

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Prohm’s Plan

The Cyclones average 1.074 points per possession in transition and 0.934 in the half court per Synergy Sports. Over 70 offensive possessions in a game, that is a difference of 10 points. Because West Virginia is constantly pressing, there was an opportunity for transition offense almost every single time down the floor. With the way the Huggy Bear likes to press, it becomes not just even numbers in transition, but a man advantage transition chance for Iowa State, which is even more juicy for an offense.

About the only other option to slowing the game down against WVU is that Prohm could bet that his players could break the press and consistently get quality looks in transition and that the added efficiency from those looks would make up for a definite spike in turnovers. This was absolutely the right strategy choice and it was working for a while. Merrill Holden had a dunk for Iowa State’s first bucket and a few minutes later he got fouled when a guard was stuck on him close to the rim. Naz Mitrou-Long got a layup at the end of the half. Matt Thomas and Donovan Jackson were wide open on a number of threes in transition in the first half. The Cyclones were constantly getting quality offense.

Although Iowa State’s 16 total turnovers wasn’t an awful number, many of them went from a potential high rate scoring chance to a loss of possession, which is devastating. Deonte Burton and Naz both just lost the ball while leading the break up the court after beating the press in the first half. West Virginia took an early charge on Naz while he was passing to a wide open shooter in the corner. In the second half, Burton had D-Jack for three points in the corner and threw the ball into the baseline. There were a couple silly travels and a Naz step out on the sideline as well.

Coach Prohm counted on his players to complete that final piece of ball handling execution before getting a great shot off, but they didn’t come through with enough frequency. In other words, within his game plan he put Iowa State into positions to succeed and they couldn’t quite execute. The odds were greater for ISU employing this strategy than in the half court grind out alternative.

The turnovers were costly, but 16 is not an egregious number against WVU. The shots ISU generated out of breaking the press quickly were excellent and for long stretches definitely outweighed turnover risk.

A few other trends completely did Iowa State in. They shot 13 of 32 from two point range for the game. That number is atrocious. The Cyclones did take a number of poorly timed pull up mid-rangers and long twos, which are bad enough, but they also lacked finishing in the paint. All of Iowa State’s bigs had trouble converting at the rim as well as some of the guards. A number of times, the Cyclones would break the press and find the right guy open around the rim for a finish and it wouldn’t end in two points. Those are good looks that would not have transpired in half court offense. Again, Prohm put his guys in positions to be successful offensively, but they didn’t convert.

West Virginia also converted an abnormal amount of shots. They shot 17 of 20 from the line, which was well above their team average of 66%. They splashed 10 of 21 shots from distance, including three banked in bombs in the first half. Those are incredibly unlucky breaks for Iowa State and are very difficult to overcome, when they started the game as the inferior team statistically.

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There are a few things Prohm could have done to aid his team a bit more. The first of these being that Iowa State needs to avoid long pull up twos at all costs. Burton, Morris and sometimes Thomas are the most notable offenders. The Cyclones average 0.75 points per possession on jump shots off the dribble, which is killing their average of 0.97 points per possession overall, considering those type of shots occur on 22% of possessions.

The press that Prohm uses, despite not being that aggressive, often bleeds layups and open threes on the back end. It is unclear whether the Cyclones are not funneling the ball in the correct directions or are not rotating well out of the press, but WVU got an inordinate amount of easy buckets off of this defense. The press strategy in general is a positive one because it takes time off the shot clock and forces teams to run effective offense in a shorter period of time, but the kinks need to be ironed out by the coaching staff to prevent opponents from getting easy buckets out of it.

Laziness and poor defense also played a factor. As Iowa State was giving up buckets and getting behind, especially in the second half, they became very impatient on offense. It looked like several Cyclones were trying to make up for the deficit in one play, but that often turned into too quick of a shot that was not good enough.


Despite what some may argue, Prohm did not necessarily get out-coached in this game. The hand he had to play was a tough one considering Iowa State’s statistics make them the inferior team. He played the right odds in figuring the Cyclones had enough quality decision makers to break the press for scores while keeping turnovers down versus valuing each possession like it’s gold and committing to a half court game. It didn’t turn out the right way, but that lack of ball handling execution and finishing as well as West Virginia shooting unreasonably well are trends that coaches can’t do much about immediately.

Lineups and minutes can be argued about, but whatever defense and rebounding Holden, Darrell Bowie or Solomon Young bring with more time also comes with generally net negatives on the offensive end. The Cyclones were not getting smacked on the boards against the Mountaineers, so extra rebounding from the bigs wouldn’t have made much of a difference. There could be a case made for extra rim protection, but does their marginally improved defense at the hoop outweigh the botched layups on offense? That discussion deserves more run elsewhere.

West Virginia got more than their fair share of breaks shooting the ball and Iowa State didn’t execute as much as they needed to to win the ball game. Prohm’s strategy was the right one and easily defensible.