Iowa State’s back-to-back losses in the Orlando ESPN Who Gives A Damn Tournament ignited Cyclone Twitter like the Batsignal on a cold night in Gotham City. The masses took to social media to declare that the season was over after losing two games in November to Power 5 teams. But never fear, Cyclone fans, I am here to pronounce that the season can still be salvaged.
Iowa State’s first loss of the weekend to Virginia Tech by 9 points had most of us, myself included, gesturing at the box score with fever at Tech’s 11 made 3’s at a close to 40% clip. That, coupled with ISU’s abysmal 24% mark from behind the line seemed to be an obvious reason for the deficit and ultimate loss. But the Cyclones made only two 3’s against VCU the game prior and were able to grind out a 4-point victory. So, what gives?
First of all, Iowa State dominated VCU on the glass with an 11-board advantage. The Cyclones took 15 more shots than VCU and forced 16 turnovers. The Clones created more opportunities to score and did so efficiently, charting a 43% offensive rebound percentage, meaning they snagged 43% of their misses in comparison to VCU’s 14% ORB%. Iowa State was able to manipulate VCU around the rim and capitalize when needed.
Secondly, Iowa State’s rebounding and turnover gains against VCU did not appear again down in Orlando. Instead, the Cyclones saw their rebounding advantage vanish against both the Hokies and Aggies in the next two contests, playing to a minus 5 margin between the two games. Essentially, Iowa State played each team to a stalemate (give or take), and that edge disappeared.
Here’s where things get frustrating: Last year, Iowa State finished the season with a horrendous 15.9 FTAs per game. The Cyclones did not have guys that could consistently get to the rim and draw contact and the offense suffered for it. This year, Iowa State has averaged 26.1 FTAs/game — which is in the 93rd percentile for all of college basketball — an obvious remarkable improvement, even through 7 games. Keshon Gilbert has shown a knack for getting downhill and drawing contact and Tamin Lipsey is doing much of the same. Anytime an offense is steadily getting to the line, good things happen... Right?
In Orlando, Iowa State shot 30, 26, and 27 free throws in the three games they played, which is a tremendous increase from last year’s team and generally a sign of a healthy offense. The issue is that every time Iowa State stepped to the free throw line in Orlando they laid a house of bricks so large that it became the newest Disney Theme Park attraction.
Iowa State missed a grand total of 34 free throws over the course of this tournament and are now down to 67.7% from the charity stripe on the year. The Cyclones must’ve been playing an imaginary game of BASEketball (anyone between 30-40 understands this reference) to have been so bad for this three-game stretch.
It’s easy to sit back and criticize guys for missing shots (see Jones, Curtis) without understanding that if Iowa State had made even half of those missed FREE throws they are likely winning at least one more game. But instead, the discourse falls to critiquing an offense that feels stale, if only because it’s so familiar. By no means is the offense perfect, but if Iowa State cleans up at the line, I don’t believe this conversation even happens.
Iowa State’s offense has generated rim looks at a 39.5% rate this season, which is up from the 31.6% rate last year’s team put together. The Cyclones are getting to the line at a healthy rate, attacking the rim with purpose, but unfortunately not sealing the deal from 15 feet. The good news is that this is a fixable issue that Otz is aware of, per his comments after the Virginia Tech game (via Cyclone Fanatic):
“Definitely the foul line was a factor,” coach T.J. Otzelberger said on the Varsity Network postgame show. “We work on them every day. We chart them every day. So we have confidence that we can do it. We got in a lot of reps today at game day practice – I think it’s just staying locked into that moment, mentally, regardless of what’s going on… and there was a lot of times there in that second half when you’re at the front end and you can’t come away with it.”
Against Texas A&M, Iowa State raced out to a 21-point lead before squandering it late in the second half. The Cyclones moved the ball well in the first half and generated clean looks from behind the arc, making 7/15 3’s. In the second half, Iowa State made just two shots from distance and at one point gave up a 16-0 run. Each of those things can’t happen when trying to protect a lead, but again, if Iowa State makes even 3 more free throws the end of that game looks very different.
It’s a long season, and it’s still very early. This team is young and inexperienced and needs time to learn and grow. Close games and any competition will make this team better in March. Pump the brakes for now, fans, we still have a long way to go.