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Checking in on Men’s Basketball and Phil Knight Invitational Preview

Let’s check in on the Men’s Basketball Team and peek ahead to the PK Invitational

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Syndication: The Des Moines Register Nirmalendu Majumdar/Ames Tribune / USA TODAY NETWORK

Iowa State moved to 3-0 on the season after a 68-53 beating of the Milwaukee Panthers on Sunday evening inside Hilton Coliseum. The Cyclones forced 27 turnovers and looked to be in complete control for a large portion of the contest. The same story could be said of the other two games this year as the Clones have mowed down a group of opponents with an average KenPom ranking of 327. Iowa State has forced turnovers at an NCAA-leading 35.7% clip and currently touts the nation’s 24th most efficient defense (KenPom). But much of this is to be expected as the Cyclones trudge through competition that is as overmatched playing in Hilton Coliseum as Tom Manning is to calling plays.

Oftentimes, it is difficult to gauge how a team will look this early in the year, especially against inferior competition. Last year’s Sweet Sixteen team won by an average of 10 points through their first 3 games and the 2018-19 Big 12 Tournament Championship Team won by an average of 18 during their first 3. Usually these first games are an opportunity to work out kinks and get comfortable playing together outside of a practice environment. Sorting through the good, bad, and ugly is more difficult when opposing players are sometimes under threat to run suicides in the middle a game or their school is splitting down the middle.

However, there are takeaways and assumptions to be made after a few games have been played, regardless of competition stature.

The Point Guard Situation is not Ideal

Fresh off a Sweet Sixteen loss last year, Iowa State appeared to be in stable hands at the point guard position. Tyrese Hunter seemed set to return, Otz and co had picked up a commitment from Temple guard Jeremiah Williams, and Ames High’s number 1 ranked in-state recruit Tamin Lipsey was already en route to the Sukup Practice Facility. Fast forward to October, where Hunter had left for greener (Orange-er?) pastures, Jeremiah Williams suffered a season-ending injury, and only the Freshman Lipsey remained. What was once a crowded room of floor generals quickly turned into a last-man-standing situation.

Lipsey was thrust into the starting PG role without an ounce of college basketball experience - with mixed results. The 6’1” guard has been tasked with running an offense that has ranged anywhere from “That looks like a basketball play” to “Honey, of course it’s normal to drink 8 Busch Lights on a Tuesday, why do you ask?” The good news is that this year’s offense HAS looked better, at least purely from a numbers standpoint. Through 3 games last year Iowa State averaged 71 PPG as opposed to the “electric” 79 PPG this year. Lipsey has mostly done the little things right: Moving the ball, staying out of turnover trouble, and managing the offense. His 23.1 Assist Rate is tops on the team as you would expect out of a starting point guard, and his 4 turnovers through 3 games is more than respectable. Lipsey has largely done what has been asked of him so far.

On the flip side, when Lipsey is not on the floor, St. Bonaventure transfer guard Jaren Holmes takes over PG duties. Holmes is a slashing, combo guard with a knack for getting in the lane and a proficiency for tough finishes. He has been Iowa State’s primary bucket-getter so far this season, but has also been thrust into a role he is relatively unfamiliar with. Last year at St. Bonaventure, Holmes played limited minutes as the technical Point Guard, as the below chart references.

Holmes is comfortable handing the ball, but plays as a natural scorer with a looser handle than you would like from a traditional PG. As the leading scorer so far this year, Holmes has comfortably handled his role as the first option for a team looking for a replacement for Isaiah Brockington. However, Holmes’ propensity for turnovers has been worrisome against competition that doesn’t exactly scream “talented”. Holmes’ 8 giveaways leads the team at this point, but he also leads the team in usage.

The ideal scenario for a skimpy point guard room relies heavily on Tamin Lipsey to continue to develop his game at a high level, as quickly as possible. The more the freshman can be trusted and remain on the floor, the better for the offense. Holmes has been OK when Lipsey has been on the bench, and though there isn’t a clear cause for concern at this early junction of the year, it is certainly something to keep an eye on going forward.

Defense: Still There

Iowa State’s elite defense from last year has carried over in a way that has most fans reading this nodding to themselves, saying “Yeah, sounds about right.” The Cyclones’ 25th ranked defense sports top 10 rankings in the below categories:

  • Effective FG%
  • Turnover %
  • Steal %
  • Non-Steal TO %

The Cyclones have been an absolute nightmare to play against so far, and have forced 73 turnovers through 3 games. Iowa State once again has a defense that will force opponents to prove their offensive worth by rotating with precision, team effort, and an influx of length that has been a pleasant surprise. DeMarion Watson and Hasan Ward have added fun minutes off the bench on the defensive side of the floor. Both guys have lanky wingspans that shrink the floor for offenses, and provide enough effort on the glass to be serviceable contributors to a defense that is already elite. The Cyclones have jumped 131 spots in the “average height” metric and can trot out a lineup with guys playing their respective positions at 6’4”, 6’4”, 6’6”, 6’8” and 6’10”. How do you make a great defense even better? Add length and guys who will buy-in. Check and check.

Offense? Jury’s Out

Iowa State has had to replace 3 of their top 6 scorers from last year and has seemed to have adjusted without any major issues. Primarily, the Cyclones have very clearly gone away from their “Brockington” offense, meaning a “Horns” set (two bigs at the elbow) into a dribble-handoff for a long two. This year, the Clones have flowed more into a single big pop to the elbow and are cutting vertically. While last year’s offense seemed to flow more from side to side, this year’s progression feels like it is meant to generate rim looks by cutting off of an elbow look. Iowa State’s “new” offense has generated good looks through 3 games so far and even sits at the top of ShotQuality’s primary selection metric:

The addition of Osun Osunniyi in particular has introduced a big that has soft hands and a passing vocabulary that is good enough for the role required. His 6 assists to 2 turnovers has been a surprise addition to an offense that could use a reliable passing center, or at the very least one that isn’t inept.

Shooting-wise, Iowa State replaced 34% and 29% 3 point shooters (Brockington & Hunter) with primary contributor Jaren Holmes’ career 34% from downtown. Shooting will continue to be an issue with a team that really struggled to score from deep last year. Even Jeremiah Williams would not have contributed by way of career averages (27%), but as Otz mentioned in the offseason, recruiting shooters that can compete on both ends of the floor is not easy. If Iowa State wants to continue to push teams on the offensive side of the ball, Caleb Grill and Gabe Kalscheur will both be called upon to contribute. Last year, Iowa State was 12-3 when Grill made 2 or more 3’s, and 7-2 when Kalscheur made 2 or more. It’s not exactly a secret that guards who can stretch the floor are a major correlation to team offensive success. Ensuring both guards are comfortable and confident will go a long way, and that seems to be part of the game plan early on. The first game against IUPUI in particular, Otz chose to go to Kalscheur early and often by way of a “floppy” action. In a “floppy” set, a shooter will start underneath the basket and choose whether to run off a single screen towards one end of the floor or a double screen on the other side. Usually this is run to get a shooter free for a one-pass three, and in Gabe’s case, is a great confidence booster as he looks to rebound from a sub par year from behind the arc last year. Kalscheur ended that first game 4-7 from downtown, and appears set to improve upon last year’s poor shooting percentage.

Grill on the other hand, is 3-20 from behind the arc and has shot the ball extremely poorly. Iowa State will call on him to make those shots, but we have likely seen the finished version Grill as a basketball player. I hope he proves me wrong and continues to add things to his game, but I won’t be holding my breath. The good news is that Grill plays hard and has found ways to impact games in the past, regardless of shooting woes. Iowa State will need him to be productive in order to bump the offense to the next level.

Phil Knight Invitational Preview

The Cyclones will travel to Portland to take on Villanova in their first real test of the year on Thanksgiving. Villanova (2-2) has struggled after the departure of longtime coach Jay Wright retired. New coach Kyle Neptune’s squad suffered a head scratching loss to Temple during their second outing, as well as a hard fought L to Tom Izzo’s Michigan State. The Wildcats play at a snail’s pace on offense, and grind out possessions on the offensive end of the floor. They are the 12th slowest team in the entire NCAA, though they still sport the 18th most efficient offense. Leading scorer Eric Dixon leads the way for ‘Nova, averaging 20 points and 6 rebounds per game. The 6’8” Junior will present a difficult test for Iowa State’s bigs as they navigate what is a very undersized starting 5. Dixon is listed as Villanova’s primary center and will likely be matched up with Osun Osunniyi. The Wildcats like to shoot from behind the arc, averaging 20 attempts per game from 3, though they hit at a 34% clip.

If Iowa State sneaks by Villanova, they’ll likely take on the defending national runner-up North Carolina Tar Heels. UNC is still led by Armando Bacot, Leaky Black, and Caleb Love, all returners from last year’s Final Four team. UNC, as they traditionally do, plays at a quicker tempo and sports an efficient offense with a loaded roster.

If Iowa State loses to Villanova, they will almost certainly square off against Portland. The Pilots (yes, really) like to play fast but have hit a few roadblocks this year, losing to both Kent State and Seattle. Portland is the 130th ranked KenPom team and is projected to finish with a 15-14 overall record.

On the other side of the bracket, Iowa State will play one of UCONN, Oregon, Alabama, or Michigan State. Instead of diving into each team and giving a brief synopsis, I’m going to rank each team in order of most to least interesting matchups:

  1. Michigan State: 2000. Nuff said
  2. Alabama: Nate Oats = Hoiberg 2.0
  3. UCONN: Let’s let Georges play this one and see how it goes
  4. Oregon: Maybe if we beat the Ducks Nike will change our boring basketball jerseys

The PKI offers a few opportunities for Iowa State to pickup a quality win this early in the year. Stacking wins now will allow the Clones more wiggle room during a gauntlet Big 12 conference schedule. Anything Iowa State can do now to make life easier for the selection committee will go a long way in March. 17-18 wins should at least put the Cyclones in the tournament discussion at the end of the year, and major opportunities to put a dent in the college basketball season starts Thursday.