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It is an achievement to make the NCAA tournament. To become legendary, a squad has to win a few games. Iowa State enters Friday’s opener against Notre Dame as a 10 seed. The Cyclones have been labeled as bracket wreckers, a description that may be an understatement.
Fred Hoiberg built this team for this moment. If everything breaks right, the streaky Cyclones can run with anyone. Iowa State is a team other coaches dread seeing on their side of the bracket, because the Cyclones possess a weapon that historically does damage in March: the long range bomb.
I went back and charted the last several NCAA tournaments to try and find any similarities in the so-called "Cinderella" stories.
In the last five years, 18 teams seeded seven or above made the Sweet 16.
Here they are:
2012: Ohio (13 seed), North Carolina State (11 seed), Xavier (10 seed), Florida (7 seed).
2011: Richmond (12 seed), VCU (11 seed), Marquette (11 seed), Butler (8 seed).
2010: Cornell (12 seed), Washington (11 seed), St. Mary’s (10 seed), Northern Iowa (9 seed).
2009: Arizona (12 seed).
2008: Western Kentucky (12 seed), Villanova (12 seed), Davidson (10 seed), West Virginia (7 seed).
If you take a closer look a few things jump out. Those teams above either had a unique style that is hard to prepare for, were carried by a star player, played a high level of defense, or shot the 3-pointer at an obscene rate. The Cyclones obviously are not an elite defensive team, they don’t have a star player that they can ride, BUT they are a unique style to game-plan for and shoot the ball at a ridiculous rate.
In 2012, the Florida Gators entered the NCAA tournament at a pedestrian 23-10. However, they were the best 3-point shooting team in the tournament. The Gators were averaging a nation best 9.9 made threes before they opened up play against Virginia in the first round. They blitzed Virginia, Norfolk State and Marquette and had Louisville on the ropes to get to a Final Four, before faltering late.
In 2011, little known VCU managed to narrowly get into the tournament as one of the first four. Nobody knew much about Shaka Smart’s club. The 11th seeded Rams came into the dance averaging 8.2 threes made per game, a total that was in the top 20 nationally and fourth best in the field of 68. When play started, they went on an unprecedented hot streak from downtown.
USC: 9 made threes
Georgetown: 18 threes!
Purdue: 8 threes
Florida State: 12 threes
Kansas: 12 threes
VCU absolutely buried some great teams. Yes, their defense created some turnovers (about 14 on average), but it was their obnoxious 3-point shooting that carried them to the Final Four.
Check this out, VCU had six guys make 30 or more threes that season. Iowa State currently has five with 30 plus and Melvin Ejim is flirting with that mark with 22 made treys. VCU shot 37.0 percent from three that season, Iowa State is at 37.0 percent right now. Some interesting correlations.
Twelfth seeded Richmond also made an unlikely run in 2011. The Spiders came into the dance averaging over eight threes per game, a mark that put them in the top 30 of the NCAA. They rode some solid shooting all the way to the Sweet 16.
In 2010, the best 3-point shooting team entering March Madness was Cornell. The 12-seed Big Red averaged an NCAA tournament best 9.8 made threes per game. Cornell ran roughshod over Temple in the opener, hitting eight of their first 10 shots. In the next round against a dominant defensive team in Wisconsin, Cornell made nine threes, shot 60 percent from the floor and coasted to an easy win. The B1G defense was not used to somebody making a jump-shot.
Northern Iowa also shocked Kansas to get the Sweet 16 that season by hitting nine treys, including the biggest moment for an Ali since, "The Thrilla in Manilla."
In 2008, the best 3-point shooting team in the field was Belmont. Second seeded Duke needed a bucket in the last 10 seconds to hold off the 15th seeded Belmont Bruins 71-70. However, the story of that tourney was a little known 10th seed named Davidson. The Wildcats came into the Dance as the third best 3-point shooting team in the field. The Steph Curry led club went on a shooting bonanza. Eleven threes against Gonzaga, seven against Georgetown, twelve against Wisconsin, and eight in a two point loss to eventual champion Kansas. Davidson’s two biggest post guys that year were both 6-8, 220 pounds and they got out-rebounded in every game during the tourney, but the long range bomb and Curry were the great equalizer. Coincidentally, Davidson is the last ten seed to make the Elite 8.
Also that season, torrid shooting Western Kentucky put up an average of nine threes in three games to get to the Sweet 16 for the first time in 15 years. That run included the Ty Rogers back-breaking launch against Drake that the Bulldogs have yet to recover from. I’m convinced that my man Dave Z would go after Rogers like Tanya Harding if he ever got the chance.
Perhaps no team fits Iowa State’s profile entering the dance better than the mid 2000’s West Virginia squads. In 2005, 38 percent of the Mountaineers offense came via the three ball. In 2006 that figure jumped to a staggering 43 percent. In fact, that ’06 WVU club is the last team not named Belmont to average 10 or more threes and make the NCAA tournament. (Iowa State enters this year’s tourney a shade under ten threes made at 9.9 and 38 percent of the Cyclones’ points come from distance. )
Few took John Belien’s team seriously in those years because they were "too reliant on the three ball." Sound familiar? That theory was Pittsnoggle’d straight to oblivion.
In ’05, 11 loss and 7 seeded West Virginia marched all the way to the Elite 8, making over 10 threes per game before bowing out to Louisville (a team that also shot the three at an absurd rate.)
In ’06, sixth seed West Virginia once again had their share of doubters. They had double-digit losses and no true big guy. It mattered little. WVU made 11 threes in a 20 point opening round drubbing over Southern Illinois. "We ran into something we’ve never seen before," Southern Illinois forward Randal Falker said after the game. "It was all confusing. I’ve never seen a team that can all hit the 3s. We just couldn’t match up with them." WVU made eight more threes, dispatching of Northwestern State the next round. And thanks to 15 threes, the Mountaineers had Texas on the ropes, before the Longhorns were saved by a Kenton Paulino trey at the buzzer to win and advance.
The three ball is like a rich guy with a lot of money. No matter how ugly those dudes are, they can still succeed if that exists.
Four BCS conference teams have entered the NCAA tournament in the last 12 years averaging 9.5 or more threes per game.
2005 – Lousiville – Made Final Four.
2006 – West Virginia -Made Sweet 16.
2012 – Florida- Made Elite 8.
2013 – Iowa State.
And that is why nobody wants to see Fred Hoiberg’s crew. As complicated as basketball can be, the end goal is to put the ball in the basket. Few teams do that better than Iowa State. Only Iona and Indiana average more points per game in the 68 team field. Yes, defense, rebounding and taking care of the ball are always tenants of having success in America’s best reality show. But all of that is meaningless if you can’t score. And these Cyclones can score like a Kardashian.
As Kirk Haaland astutely pointed out, Iowa State doesn’t, "live and die by the three." We have seen the Cyclones succeed in games a multitide of times when they shot poorly. But the mere threat of a Cyclone launch opens up the rest of the floor and leads to easy buckets, which are a valuable commodity this time of year.
I have no idea what will happen on Friday, none of us do. But there is a feeling brewing that if things click, we may be in for a memorable ride. Buckle up, Hoiball just may take America by storm.