After Iowa State’s 64-58 victory over Creighton on Saturday night in Omaha, Greg McDermott had this to say about TJ Otzelberger and the undefeated Cyclones: “T.J. has done a great job getting Iowa State to buy in to what he wants them to do. They play with great energy and toughness.
The now 17th ranked Cyclones won on the road for the first time since February of 2019 and remained perfect on the year. The offense sputtered to the tune of 64 points, but the defense remained as impressive as Ames, Iowa has seen since Larry Eustachy’s scheme had offenses terrified in the early 2000s.
But Iowa State has yet to be tested by a team as good as Iowa (7-2) is on the offensive side of the floor. The Hawks bring in the nation’s 5th most efficient offense (via KenPom), and hold the 7th fastest average possession length at 14.8 seconds. For comparison, Iowa State’s 16.8 seconds/possession is 121st this year, and the 2015 Hoiball team that featured Georges Niang and co. held the 2nd fastest at 14.6 seconds/possession. So yeah, Iowa likes to get up and down.
It’s no secret the story of this year’s CyHawk game will feature Iowa State’s tenacious defense against Fran McCaffrey’s track meet, “7 seconds or less” offense. But who’s style of play will ultimately impose their will? For answers, I looked at Iowa’s battle against Virginia from last week.
Defense and Tempo
The Cavaliers under Tony Bennett have been known for one thing in his tenure in Charlottesville: Defense.
Bennett’s teams have ranked in the top five nationally in scoring defense in 11 of his 15 seasons as a head coach. UVA has led the nation in scoring defense six times under Bennett, including most recently in 2020 (via virginiasports.com).
This year, Virginia is somewhat comparable to the Cyclones, which is not something I ever would’ve imagined typing 5 years ago. Iowa State holds higher defensive ranks in Adjusted Efficiency, Effective FG %, Turnover %, 3P% (opponent), Steal %, and Non-Steal Turnover %. The one thing that really separates Virginia from any other great defensive team is the snail’s pace they play at. In fact, Virginia is the single-slowest team via adjusted tempo in the entire country. They are dead last in the aforementioned Adj. Tempo, but also are in the bottom 10 in Average Possession Length on Offense AND Defense. You’d have better luck speeding up the line at the DMV than the Cavaliers.
So what does this have to do with Iowa State, who runs a mostly mediocre tempo on offense and defense? After all, Virginia didn’t even beat Iowa!
Consider this: Iowa is the nation’s leader in valuing the basketball (Turnover %: 11.6), while Iowa State excels at turning people over (27.2%, 6th). Virginia forced only 4 turnovers in last week’s game against Iowa, which, undoubtedly will be a point of emphasis for both teams coming into this week’s showdown. Those 4 forced turnovers still only pointed to a 1 point Iowa win, and this came after Virginia allowed 44 first-half points, the most allowed since Tony Bennett has been at UVA.
But what really stuck out to me was the total number of possessions that Iowa and Virginia had, which was a sluggish 58/team. Consider that Iowa State’s rock fight with Creighton included 170 total possessions and you get an idea of how things really crawled for Iowa. Virginia’s ability to slow the pace in the second half allowed them to climb back from an at one point 21 point (first half) deficit.
It’s not a secret that taking a team out of doing what they do well will translate into success for the opposing team.
Iowa State’s ability to slow the pace and control tempo will likely be a driving factor in controlling Iowa’s offense. Forcing turnovers, grinding out stops, and making Iowa’s playmakers will be keys to the Cyclones being the Hawks for the first time in three years.
The dynamic 6-8 sophomore, Keegan Murray, will also force Iowa State to consider additional post-entry double teams. The forwards from Cedar Rapids is average 24.6 PPG and 8.9 Rebs on 66% eFG. Murray has the ability to step behind the arc and knock down 3’s, at a rate of 34% on 4 attempts per game. Tristan Enaruna will almost certainly be designated with slowing down Murray, and will certainly have his hands full. Enaruna’s job will be to push Murray out of the lane and make him initiate dribble-drives from farther out than he may be comfortable. Easier said than done, but it is possible:
Murray reminds me of an atypical NBA PF/Wing combo. He can handle the ball in transition if needed, but seems to be more comfortable bodying smaller players via mismatch. As I heard on the Iowa-Virginia broadcast, he’s an “Undersized 4 or an oversized 3.” I’m anxious to see if Otz decides to roll the dice on playing the smaller Izaiah Brockington on Murray when Enaruna is resting, or decide to go big and match up with any of Iowa State’s C/F’s. It should be noted Fran has used Keegan Murray at Center only 12% of the time (via KenPom), likely to keep Murray’s size/quickness combo as a matchup problem against opposing forwards, considering Iowa bigs Patrick McCaffery and Filip Rebraca are both 6-9.
Jordan Bohannon presents another unique challenge. The 6th year senior shoots an absurd 60% eFG and makes 3’s at a 43% clip. Perhaps even more astounding is his hesitancy to shoot from inside the arc. Bohannon has shot 49 3’s this year and only 13 2’s. I’ll give him credit, as the old man in the NCAA, he knows what he’s good at, and that’s being a knock-down shooter. Bohannon commands attention behind the arc and can shoot off the dribble and catch:
Look for Tre Jackson, Tyrese Hunter, and Caleb Grill all to take turns chasing Bohannon around screens. Gabe Kalscheur and Izaiah Brockington will likely be dealing with the height of Iowa’s forwards and unable to be primary defenders as the game progresses (though Kalscheur may start as the primary defender. We will see.).
All in all this CyHawk matchup is an interesting contrast of styles, which is something we have not seen for a long time. Iowa State’s defense will have their hands full with a solid Iowa offense, while the Cyclones’ propensity to force turnovers cannot be ignored. For all the discussion I’ve brought up about pace and tempo, the answer to who comes out on top will likely lay somewhere in the middle. If Iowa State can keep possessions to a minimum and grind out stops, they will win. If Iowa gets out in transition and is able to speed up the pace, the Hawks will get their 4th win against the Clones in a row. Hilton should be riled up and ready to politely welcome Iowa, just as they usually are, and I think this game is determined by a few possessions down the stretch. A game in the 70s or 80s likely doesn’t favor the Clones. I’m excited for this game, but ultimately think Iowa pulls out a close one.
Iowa State: 72