If you have paid attention at all during the nationally televised Iowa State games over the past four years, there are a few storylines that get beaten into the ground. Georges Niang once shot hook shots over Nerlens Noel. Fred Hoiberg was a former ball boy at Iowa State. Melvin Ejim is a great undersized rebounder. Dustin Hogue has a brother that played in the NFL. Yada, yada, yada. (Credit Iowa State information man Matt Shoultz for the quality notes supplied to these broadcasters.)
And of course without fail, Iowa State’s "NBA" style of play is a topic du jour. This of course is a compliment and a credit to Hoiberg and Hoiball. As one of the self-proclaimed eight NBA fans in Iowa, I can attest to the fact that while this "NBA" statement is over simplified, it is perhaps the biggest reason why Iowa State is on the forefront of a new wave of college basketball.
In the late ’90’s and into the 2000’s, the NBA was in a bad spot. Their icon Michael Jordan had just retired for the 2nd and 3rd time, hand-checking and assault in the post had taken over, the pace of play slowed and scoring fell off a cliff. In 1995, NBA teams averaged 101.4 points per game. By 1999, that number had dropped to 91.6 points and points mired in that area for almost a decade. During that time, if an NBA team didn’t have a dominant low post presence (Shaq, Tim Duncan) it was difficult to compete and the game was hideous to watch as a result. Isolation post up after isolation post up. Gross.
In 2005, the NBA figured they had to do something and implemented hand-check rules to free up drivers and clear the mess in the paint. It wasn’t an immediate improvement, but slowly scoring increased and guards and small forwards were given a fighting chance.
I worked in the broadcast department for the Orlando Magic in 2008 and 2009 and witnessed the results of this new era of basketball first hand. (I also witnessed a backup center win $50 thousand on whether or not he could dunk from the free throw line. He could and purchased new rims for his car.)
The Magic of course had Dwight Howard, but also led the NBA in three pointers attempted and made.
For most of the year, Orlando started 225 pound Rashard Lewis at the power forward spot. They also had versatile forward Hedo Turkolgu in the starting lineup. Both Lewis and Turkoglu were very average defensive players. I had the pleasure of dealing with Stan Van Gundy on a daily basis, who is one of the more underrated and smartest coaches in basketball. The media constantly asked Van Gundy, "How are you going to guard so and so with Lewis and Turkolgu?"
Van Gundy would always respond, "Well, they have to guard us too." The Magic made the NBA Finals in 2009 and the Eastern Conference Finals in 2010, embracing versatility and the three ball before most other squads.
Teams no longer needed multiple big guys to win; versatility and skill was just as important. Size didn’t matter…as much. Now a team like Miami can win multiple titles with Chris Bosh and Chris Andersen as their big dudes (Oh and that LeBron guy.)
The college basketball game is about to undergo a similar trend. Scoring grounded to a halt in the past few years as the game rewarded physicality over flow. This past off-season, the NCAA implemented the Flomax rules to increase scoring and limit the ugliness that had entrapped college basketball.
Hoiberg and Iowa State are three years ahead of the curve. Under Hoiberg, Iowa State has valued skill over size. If given the choice between an undersized, skilled forward and a 6-foot-11 dude who struggles to move his feet, the small guy always wins. Iowa State has played just one person 6-foot-9 or taller more than 15 minutes per game in Hoiberg’s tenure and that was Jamie "Big Silky" Vanderbeken.
Instead the Cyclones have utilized hybrids like Melvin Ejim, Jake Anderson, Royce White, Will Clyburn, Georges Niang, Dustin Hogue and DeAndre Kane. While these ‘ fellas may have been at a disadvantage on the defensive end of the floor in certain situations, they were/are a nightmare for other teams to defend. As Van Gundy said then and Hoiberg would echo, "They have to guard us too."
It is all about the "cross match."
Iowa State has rendered multiple big guy lineups by opponents almost useless. Teams like Kansas and Baylor have been forced to play Iowa State’s style rather than the alternative. It is difficult sometimes for Iowa State to rebound and defend against size, but it is flat out impossible for a slow-footed big guy to guard Iowa State’s hybrids on the perimeter.
In the Hoiberg era, nobody has slowed down Iowa State’s offense consistently. Bill Self, who is considered one of the best defensive minds in college basketball, has had his Jayhawks in the top 10 of Ken Pomeroy’s defensive efficiency ratings for the last decade. KU allowed a paltry 60 points per game the last two years. In their last five games against KU in that time-span, the Cyclones have put up over 80 points per contest.
Iowa State runs the fat guy in dodge ball offense. Find the weak link in the defense and attack mercilessly. It is so amazingly simple, but excruciating to defend if you don’t have the personnel.
It is this so called NBA mentality that has Iowa State on the verge of the top 10 and continues to befuddle opponents. It is just a matter of time before other squads catch on and run their own version of Hoiball. College basketball, like the NBA, is a copycat business.
Luckily, Iowa State has more hybrids in the pipeline. Northern Illinois transfer Abdel Nader (6’7) will fill the Melvin Ejim role beautifully and incoming JUCO recruit Jameel McKay (6’8) has crazy skill and athleticism. Both should thrive in the Iowa State system.
The Cyclones struck gold with Fred Hoiberg. Don’t expect the good times to slow anytime soon.
Embrace the hybrid and feel the flow.