Last year Iowa State and Iowa squared off in a game with similar implications to this season. The Cyclones began the season 8-0 and turned heads during their preseason tournament en route to a 12-0 start before their first loss of the year in January. The Hawkeyes, meanwhile, began their year 7-2 — their only losses coming at the hands of Big 10 opponents Purdue and Illinois.
This year, Iowa State sports a 7-1 record after turning heads (again) at a preseason tournament while the Hawks are 6-1, their only blemish coming at the behest of Jamie Dixon’s TCU Horned Frogs. The Cyclones still own one of the best defenses in the country (13th via KenPom), Iowa still has a Murray brother (Kris) and multiple McCaffery’s, — which feels more like the setup to a joke your uncle tells than a roster observation — and Iowa State added another Sweet Sixteen banner while Iowa is fresh off an early round NCAA Tournament exit. The more things change, the more they stay the same, and that’s the story for this iteration of the CyHawk basketball game: Offense vs. Defense, single star player vs. scrappy team, pace vs. possession, and of course, Fran McCaffery vs. staying calm.
Iowa State’s Defense vs. Iowa’s Offense
As mentioned previously, Iowa State currently sports the 13th best defensive efficiency in the country. Iowa, meanwhile, trots out the 3rd best offense in all of college basketball. Last year, the Hawks ran the 5th best offense coming into Hilton Coliseum and well, we all know how that turned out. Iowa State will once again attempt to drag out possessions and force Iowa to play in the half court. Consider how the Clones slowed down St. John’s on Sunday. The Red Storm had the 2nd fastest tempo AND possession length and only managed to score 60 against an ISU defense that looked comfortable and in control all game. Iowa State’s ability to slow the game down and play transition defense against the 2nd fastest team in America is an indicator of how well this team responds to offenses who like to run. This Iowa team has the 13th quickest average possession length in the country, and part of Fran McCaffery’s offensive design is predicated on putting up shots early and often.
A major part of Iowa State’s success on defense comes from turning teams over. The Cyclones turn teams over at a 30% clip, easily good for best in the country. In contrast, Iowa only turns it over 12.9% of the time, which is also the best in the country. Unstoppable force, meet immovable object. But last year, Iowa State forced Iowa into 12 turnovers, their 3rd highest mark from all season. In Iowa’s loss to TCU earlier this year, the Horned Frogs turned Iowa over 15 times en route to a 13 point win, and Iowa State’s mission will be the same: Keep the Hawkeyes uncomfortable and drag them into the mud.
The flip side to Iowa State’s aggressive, balls-to-the-wall style of defense is that it often leads to a high volume of fouling. This year, Iowa State opponents have scored 26% of their points from the foul line against the Cyclones, which is the 12th most in the entire NCAA. Iowa State also sports an exceptionally high free throw rate of 40% (for context, Iowa’s 15.9% defensive free throw rate is 3rd in all of the NCAA).
If Iowa State can defend without fouling and keep guys off the bench, the Cyclones should have a very good chance to win this game.
Fire Up the Grill?
New Cyclone folk hero Caleb Grill recently put himself in conversation for one of the most memorable individual performances in Men’s Basketball history after his 31 points took down then-number 1 ranked North Carolina. Grill has had success so far this year and looks to be shooting with confidence and poise. Grill’s propensity for streaking’s has been been much maligned during his time at Iowa State. In particular, his strange tendency to make shots at a much higher level away from Hilton Coliseum is head-scratching. Last year, Grill shot 54% from the field and from behind the line in true away games. Within the friendly confines of Hilton, Grill only managed to produce a 34% field goal percentage and 28% (!!!) 3 point clip. The 6’3” guard was a coin flip 3 point shooter in basically any other building besides Hilton Coliseum last year, which may somehow be the craziest split I have ever seen.
As Grill goes, so do the Cyclones. Iowa State was 12-2 last year when Grill scored 8 or more points and so far this year Iowa State has won every game Grill has made a basket. Any guesses on the one game he didn’t? If you guessed UCONN, you’d be correct. Grill provides spacing this Iowa State offense desperately needs at times. The gravity of a hot shooter forces defenses to think about another variable and scheme around who to help off of. Last year I wrote about the gravity and weight of Jordan Bohannon in the Iowa offense, and while Grill certainly does not claim the same consistency from behind the arc, his ability to light it up from behind the line would do wonders do open up Iowa State’s offense.
Iowa State and Iowa present real matchup problems for each other. Iowa State’s defense is designed to do what Iowa’s offense does best, and Iowa’s propensity for taking care of the basketball will undoubtedly be what wins or loses them this game. If Iowa State is able to control tempo and slow Iowa down, I like the Cyclones to win this game. If the Cyclones get into foul trouble early and shoot themselves in the foot, I like the Hawkeyes. The difference to me in this game is the production of Caleb Grill and other supporting cast members for Iowa State. We know the defense will be ready, but can the offense do their part and hold up their end of the floor? We’ll see on Thursday night in Iowa City.
Iowa State: 69