Well, believe it or not the Iowa State Men’s Basketball Team is done with their non-conference schedule and is headed to Big 12 play. The Cyclones began the year with minimal expectations after headed to the Sweet Sixteen last year. After notching a few Buy Game wins early, Iowa State made some noise in Brooklyn with wins against Villanova and then-number-1-ranked North Carolina before bowing out to the now Ken Pom number 2 ranked UCONN Huskies. Following a nuclear beatdown of St. John’s at Hilton, the Cyclones handed the launch keys to the McCaffrey family and watched them beat the life out of an Iowa State team that was about as successful in putting the ball in the basket as the WRNL staff is at spitting game on the weekends.
All in all, I think most people would’ve signed up for a 9-2 non-conference campaign, and what we have seen this year has mirrored what we saw from last year. That being said, there is always something to be learned from finishing the non-conference schedule (sans Missouri in January), so here are a few things I Think I Think:
Iowa State’s Playstyle Is Difficult To Plan Against
Consider this: Since taking over last year, TJ Otzelberger has now only lost 3 non-conference games in two years. Against first-time opponents, Otz has only lost 2 games: Miami in the Sweet Sixteen and UCONN this year.
Non-Big 12 opponents are finding out that Iowa State’s aggressive defense and propensity for forcing turnovers are an impossible 1-2 punch to prepare for. This year, Iowa State is the number 1 team in the country at forcing turnovers, doing so at a 31% clip. Last year’s team finished the year with the 6th highest margin at 24.6%. Iowa State has a knack for jumping in the passing lanes, forcefully doubling post-ups, and drawing charges, all part of the “No Middle” defense that they have run to perfection under Otz and Assistant Coach Kyle Green.
I believe that the Big 12 has been so terrific from top to bottom that it is actually skewing how good the Clones were last year. It’s not exactly a secret the Big 12 has been the best conference in college basketball for a few years running, and the physicality and style of play has contributed to teams making deep tournament runs and forced teams into playing bar-fight basketball. Non-conference games are often dictated by officiating (refs are also shocked by the physicality) and the incredulousness of opposing offenses who aren’t used to the rough-and-tumble handshakes that Iowa State imposes.
There’s no better primer to the NCAA Tournament than the Big 12 conference. Iowa State will need to survive the bare knuckle brawl that is conference play and come out standing (or wobbling) to breath easy on Selection Sunday.
Iowa State’s Offense Has No Room For Error
One of the things I was excited about coming into the year was the potential to re-tool a stagnant and inefficient offense from last season that made my eyes bleed on a weekly basis (this sentence will also be included in my football predictions next August). The Cyclones ran a simple offense predicated on getting the ball to Brockington and getting everyone the hell out of the way. Sometimes it worked (just ask Bob Huggins) and other times it absolutely did not (see, Texas Tech in the conference tournament) but either way, there was never a doubt where the ball was going and who was going to be shooting.
This year, Iowa State’s offense is cited as being the 125th most efficient (171 last year) and offers both a slow tempo and average possession length. In this era of re-branding the Cyclones to a defense-first type of team, I’m often reminded of Virginia and their success they’ve had under Tony Bennett. Bennett’s team that bested Iowa State in the Sweet Sixteen sported offenses that were DMV-slow and had a defense to back it up. Virginia, though running at a snail’s pace, also ended the year with the 8th best offense and featured top 20 finishes in:
- Effective FG %
- Turnover %
- Block % (meaning they don’t get shots blocked)
- Non-Stl TO %
Virginia’s offense was still one of the slowest in the country but were ELITE at many different facets on that side of the floor. They did a lot of things well AND still grinded out possessions and walked up the ball constantly.
The Cyclones have checked a few of these boxes that those old Cavalier teams did: They play elite defense and aren’t exactly racing up and down the floor (279th in tempo, 240th in avg. poss. length). The offense part needs to come next. The slower Iowa State goes, the more important it is that their offense begins to click. The margin for error dramatically decreases. Iowa State’s magic number this year has been 63 and last year’s was 73. It’s not a secret that if this team get’s even a slightly-above average night from the offense, they win a lot.
The Future Is Bright
Freshman PG Tamin Lipsey has composed himself remarkably well after being thrust into a starting role as a newcomer to the college ranks. The Ames native was set to learn and develop under Tyrese Hunter in a pressure-less environment this year, but Hunter had other plans. Now, Lipsey has been a calming presence on a sometimes chaotic and unorganized offense and his 2.7 assist/turnover rate has been good enough on a team that needs direction on offense and to be pointed in the right direction (Monte’s freshman year 4.7 ast/TO rate will probably never be touched). His willingness to pass and look for others is as frustrating as it is commendable. Oftentimes I felt myself calling for Lipsey to be more aggressive and look for his own shot, something that I’m sure will come with time. Defensively, Lipsey boasts a 4.2% Steal %, good for 61st best in the NCAA. His quick hands and foot speed allow him to stay in front of other quicker guards and has been a welcome addition to an already great defense.
On the recruiting trail, Otz was able to sign the 7th best class in the country for 2023. Waukee’s Omaha Biliew is the 12th highest rated recruit in all of high school and leads a group of 4 that is undoubtedly the highest ranked in school history.
Biliew is joined by 4 star forward Milan Momcilovic, a 6’8” forward from Wisconsin who can step out and shoot the basketball, Jelani Hamilton, a 4 star guard from Georgia, and Kayden Fish, a 6’6” forward from Kansas City. Otz also received a commitment from 4 star guard Nojus Indrusaitis out of Chicago for 2024, the first signing of the class.
Otz has put together a game plan that is as clear cut as it gets: Recruit the upper Midwest and supplement talent and development gaps with transfer portal plug and plays. So far so good.
Iowa State takes on number 12 Baylor on Saturday afternoon inside Hilton Coliseum. The Bears are fresh off a 29 point drubbing they dished out against Nicholls State Wednesday night but have notched solid wins against Gonzaga and UCLA so far this season, and have generally looked every bit as good as they are advertised.
Baylor is led by Freshman sensation Keyonte George. The 6’4” Freshman guard can score at will, and has certainly proved that he is one of the best players in the country so far. George has tallied 20 points or more on 4 different occasions this year, and recently scored 21 against Nicholls.
George is almost certainly an NBA talent will be a lottery pick in next year’s draft. His ability to get to the rim and knock down shots in tandem makes him extremely dangerous and will need to be a focal point for Iowa State’s offense.
While George has been a stand-out as a newcomer for Baylor, the Bears also return familiar faces LJ Cryer and Adam Flagler in the backcourt. Cryer sat out against Nicholls and looked to be in concussion protocol. All 3 guards contribute to an offense that takes and makes a high volume of 3s each game. Baylor is in the top 25 in both 3 point attempts and makes, and sees them go in at a 35% clip. The Bears like to spread the ball around: Their offense is in the top 25 in assists and assists per made baskets.
Defensively, Baylor hosts a top 50 adjusted efficiency and forces turnovers at a top 25 rate. Despite the Bears playing at a decently fast pace on offense, they’ve still managed to hold 9 opponents under 70 points this year. Senior guard Dale Bonner forces steals at a 5.3% clip, which is a top 15 ranking across the entire country and West Virginia transfer Jalen Bridges blocks shots at a high level in the front court.
In Baylor’s two losses to Virginia and Marquette, both opponents shot well over 50% from the field and moved the basketball at a high level. In each game Baylor allowed 20 or more assists and sported the two worst defensive ratings of their season.
Baylor is a very good basketball team and Iowa State will be shorthanded with the news that Jaz Kunc is now out for at least a month with a broken finger. The Cyclones haven’t beaten BU since the Big 12 Tournament way back in 2019 and have only scored more than 70 points against the Bears twice in that span. Iowa State will need to find ways to create easy baskets and force havoc on the defensive side of the ball. Marquette was largely successful against Baylor this year by forcing turnovers, which Iowa State is more than capable of doing.
I would expect Tre King to start on Saturday, but Otz could also slide in Demarion Watson as King gets back up to speed. I wouldn’t bet on seeing Osun Osunniyi and Robert Jones on the floor together and I don’t think starting Kalscheur makes sense from a matchup perspective.
As always, Iowa State will need to be aggressive defensively, and guard without fouling. In both of Iowa State’s losses this year, they have forced exactly 17 turnovers but have picked up more than 20 fouls on both occasions. The physicality of both teams should hopefully allow the Cyclones to play with freedom, but we will know early how Iowa State’s aggressive style of defense will matchup against a talented offensive attack.
Ultimately, I think the loss of Jaz Kunc creates a lot of problems for Iowa State’s spacing and offensive gameplan. In losses to both Iowa and UCONN this year, the Cyclones made only 3 shots from behind the arc. The substitution of a 35% 3 point shooter does not give me confidence that this team will be able to keep up with Baylor’s offense.
However, if Iowa State can force turnovers and stay out of foul trouble, this will be a nail biter. The Cyclones forced 18 and 11 turnovers against the Bears last year and still lost both games, so this will require a complete effort on both sides of the ball. Ultimately, I don’t think the Clones have enough firepower right now to keep up with the loss of Jaz Kunc, but with a sold out Hilton Coliseum on the horizon, I’d be foolish to count the Clones out completely.
KenPom predicts a 67-66 Baylor win and I will too:
Iowa State: 65