Iowa State’s defense has been the driving force behind an incredible turnaround from a 2-22 record a year ago. The 16-5 Cyclones are the 6th best defensive team in the country, according to KenPom, and boast the 3rd highest Turnover % in the country. Normally the more physical and aggressive team, Iowa State met their match against the Jayhawks, at least according to Iowa State coach TJ Otzelberger.
“We weren’t as aggressive guarding the ball as we normally are,” TJ Otzelberger said. “They shot 56% on our court. We’ve always got to be the aggressor for our team to be the team that we can be, and for us to be successful.” (via the Des Moines Register)
That’s not to say Iowa State’s 61-70 loss to the Kansas Jayhawks was totally the defense’s fault. After all, this same unit also forced 22 Kansas turnovers, which was 5 turnovers more than the next closest game this year for the Jayhawks. However, Kansas also shot a stunning 56% from the field - their second highest total of the season. If Iowa State wasn’t forcing a turnover, Kansas was scoring.
But how is it that Bill Self was able to crack the Iowa State defensive code and put a beatdown on the Cyclones?
Playing in Space
Iowa State is an aggressive defensive team. Otz may not have thought so against Kansas, but as a whole, the Cyclones love to trap and force turnovers. Part of this strategy involves blitzing high pick & rolls away from the basket and also in the low post to encourage errant passes.
Take the above image, for example. David McCormack sets a high ball screen for Dajuan Harris, who is immediately doubled by his man (Hunter) and McCormack’s man (Jones). Iowa State, by design, is looking to play the passing lanes out of this situation and get deflections. Particularly in this game, Iowa State was content to blitz pick & roll opportunities whenever McCormack was setting a screen, forcing him to be the primary decision-maker in a 4 on 3 situation. In this instance, Harris has enough space to pass to the corner, where Jalen Wilson is able to collect and fire immediately back to McCormack on the short roll for a paint touch.
The above clip shows much of the same. Harris-McCormack pick & roll into a short roll, 4 on 3 situation. McCormack makes a quick decision to shoot, but immediately follows his own shot, no doubt believing he missed it. McCormack is clearly most comfortable with his back to the basket — think about putting George Conditt in this same situation.
Again, Iowa State blitzes the McCormack-Harris pick & roll and the Kansas big man sinks another jumper. Are you sensing a theme? All night Iowa State tempted Kansas to work with McCormack as a decision-maker and all night he made the Clones pay. Even when Iowa state doubled and he didn’t shoot, Kansas found ways to score, like the below 3 on 2 that McCormack accurately diagnoses and finds the open man for a corner three. McCormack didn’t miss a shot all night, going 7-7 from the floor and adding 14 rebounds in a dominating performance:
Kansas also made a litany of acrobatic and contested layups that would’ve made the Globetrotters jealous. Time and time again the Jayhawks got timely run-stopping baskets from guys like Drake transfer Joseph Yesufu, whose 3 silenced Hilton at the 13 minute mark in the second half after a Kalscheur bucket cut the KU lead to 5. The Jayhawks had an answer for everything, it seemed, and part of that was Bill Self’s game plan to play in space, push tempo when necessary, and trust his big man to make good decisions.
If Iowa State is going to continue to trap in space, they better be prepared to rotate and scramble with efficiency and quickness. Bill Self used Iowa State’s defense against the Cyclones in a big way, and it certainly won’t be the last time we see this.
When you allow a team to shoot 56% from the field, the offense better be able to cash the check the defense clearly isn’t able to. To the surprise of no one, Iowa State’s offense failed for what seemed like the upteenth time this year. Izaiah Brockington, Iowa State’s usual contributor and the only man who I routinely yell at the TV “Save us!”, had his normal night from the field, scoring 24 points and adding 8 rebounds. However, Brockington’s ball dominance finally caught up to him against Kansas, to the tune of 39% from the floor on 11-28 shooting, a number that would make even Russell Westbrook blush. The next closest Cyclone took 9 shots - a number owned by Gabe Kalscheur’s 3-8 performance.
Iowa State’s offense has become predictable, stagnant, and stale. All too often we see the Cyclones run a base “Horns” set by bringing Enaruna and Jones to the free throw line with Tyrese Hunter throwing an entry pass to either elbow. Usually, the ball goes away from the right side of the floor where Brockington sits in the corner. Izaiah runs to his left, catches a hand-off or comes off a stagger screen, and hops into a mid-range jumper. At it’s most simple, it looks like this:
But what happens when Brockington is covered? What happens when things break down? Iowa State’s secondary action sometimes stalls into a delayed pick and roll action, or, more times than not, the Cyclones are unable to generate individual looks out of emergency isolation.
While I acknowledge the shot clock running down and one player pounding the basketball into the ground isn’t good offense, there’s a reason I routinely say “Save us, Izaiah!”. He’s the only guy on this team that can create his own shot under duress. Think back to the days of Georges and Monte: When things broke down, you could count on Georges to spin into a right-hand hook, or Monte to take a side-step jumper. Hell, even THT could bounce into a step-back every now and then. The current roster does not support anyone outside of Brockington with the skill level necessary to bail out an offense that doesn’t create enough open looks to begin with. Tyrese Hunter will get there — and he certainly flashes the desired offensive traits — but until he learns to value the basketball and create with consistency, he is not a reliable option.
I’m tired of harping on the offense, so I can’t imagine how frustrated the players are. It’s not their fault, I just truly don’t believe the current scheme is creative enough to sustain spectacular output. In the meantime, points will continue to come off of turnovers. Let the defense create where the offense cannot. Their effort alone has already willed them to multiple wins this year, and they can certainly continue to do so going forward.
As must-win as this game felt like, it’s still Kansas. I would argue the Jayhawks played better without Ochai Agbaji than with him. The ball didn’t stick and it moved with purpose, involving all members of the Kansas offense. They played patiently (when they weren’t turning it over) and were clearly in control most of the way. The game plan was sound, and they dominated the glass, 37 to 26. As easy as it is to blame Iowa State, Kansas made incredible shots and were well-prepared. But such is life in the Big 12.
Iowa State will have chances to bounce back in Austin on Saturday and in Morgantown next week, and will surely come out being the aggressors, unlike Tuesday night in Ames.