Doing it with defense

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It isn’t exactly what we’ve come to expect out of Fred Hoiberg teams.

For the past three and a half years, we’ve heard a lot of praise for Hoiberg and his offense spreading the court and his players having the green light to shoot from anywhere, at any time, with confidence. We’ve heard about his ability to exploit mismatches. We’ve read columns about Iowa State’s offensive efficiency after timeouts under his tutelage. And the NBA comparisons have been plentiful.

But this year’s team is different. Different at the offensive end of the court but most noticeably by far, different on the defensive end and it is mostly being done with the same plan as the past few seasons. The defense is winning as many games for these Cyclones as the offense, and that is definitely a surprise.

It probably isn’t noticeable to the casual fan or even the fan that pays attention but glosses over some of the intricacies. That fan sees that in the past five games the Cyclones have given up 72-plus points and probably shrugs their shoulders. They don’t think it is necessarily bad, but it surely isn’t good, is it?

The Cyclone defense is allowing 70.6 points per game to its opponents, just the 191st best in the country (out of 351 teams), you’re not impressed yet, I know. With the advent of advanced stats and the application of context to common stats though, we begin to see what has made this Cyclone defense better than the past few.

Tempo accounts for the number of possessions an offense or defense has to score in a game and levels the playing field of scoring related stats. If you have watched much Iowa State basketball under Hoiberg you know the preference is to play fast. The Cyclones have averaged 74 possessions per 40 minutes played in conference games while everyone else is below 72. Teams like TCU, Kansas State, and West Virginia are below 65. Per Ken Pomeroy, the Cyclones average 73 possessions per 40 minutes this season (that is actually adjusted for competition so it isn’t exactly 73 by raw data) which is the 11th quickest pace in the NCAA.

So what is the net result of that quicker tempo when merged with the semi-higher scoring outputs from opponents? It puts those scoring performances into context. On a per possession basis, you can see that the Cyclone defense is not only “not so bad”, they’re actually pretty good. In conference play, Iowa State is allowing 1.03 points per possession and for the year as a whole they allow 0.96 points per possession.

Per Ken Pomeroy, once he makes his adjustments for tempo and opposition he has the Cyclone defense as the 21st best in the country. For reference, last year Iowa State was 133rd, in 2012 they were 54th, and in 2011 they were 120th. The Cyclones haven’t finished in the top 25 of his adjusted defense since 2005 and Wayne Morgan’s trapping 2-3 zone finished as the 5th best in the NCAA.

Perhaps one major thing to note in all of this is that again, per Ken Pomeroy, Iowa State has faced the 10th toughest collection of offenses in college basketball.

While scoring defense is the bottom line, and the end all be all, there are worthwhile components to take a look at too. The most notable component that leads to a team’s ultimate success or demise as a defense is their opponent’s Effective Field Goal percentage (eFG%). Effective Field Goal percentage applies the added value of the 3-point shot to the total field goal percentage because it makes sense to account for the additional point. The formula looks like this: ((1.5 x 3FGM)+2FGM)/FGA.

Here’s the main thing you need to know, Iowa State is holding teams to an eFG% of 45.7% which is currently 52nd in the country. Not out of this world, but very solid. That means the Cyclones are executing Hoiberg’s game plans and often forcing teams to lower percentage shots by a combination of the player taking the shot and the spot from which he shoots. That is a good start for a top flight defense.

But what about the misses? Despite the recent hand wringing over rebounding, the Cyclones are still 52nd in defensive rebounding percentage at 71.7%. Why use rebounding percentage? For one, total rebounds and/or rebounding margin gives no context—there’s that word again—to the number of shots a team attempts—thus available rebounds—due to turnovers and other factors. That is another solid component to a strong defense. Every defense rebounds removes an opportunity for your opponent to score.

But, there is still more. One strength of all Hoiberg teams has been their ability to limit opponent trips to the free throw line. A part of the equation that Tim Floyd used to always talk about with making more free throws than your opponent attempts. The best way to track this is to compare the free throw attempts of the opponent to their field goal attempts. That isn’t the most accurate of advanced stats but it does show how often a team can get to the line when they are getting shots off and the ability for a defense to avoid fouling altogether. They Cyclones defensive free throw rate is 26.5% which is third best in the country. That is a big deal in eliminating easy opponent points—especially this year with the points of emphasis, even if they were largely abandoned before Christmas.

Typically under Hoiberg, the defense has chosen to not be a pressuring defense that can leave holes to attack and exploit and instead has forced the offense to beat them without making mistakes. Not all that different from a “bend but don’t break” defensive philosophy used in football. Thus, Iowa State has never generated a great number of turnovers and that is again the case with opposing team’s turning the ball over on just 17.2% of their possessions for the 258th highest rate in the country. But recently that pendulum has swung.

Whether it is due to dumb luck in a lot of cases, more opportune defensive play, or just fundamental mistakes from opponents that percentage has jumped to 19.8% since conference play began, that is the best in the Big 12. For reference, if their defensive turnover percentage was at 19.8% for the entire season they would be in the top 100 of all defenses.

In summary, this year the Cyclone defense is funneling offenses to low percentage shots, grabbing the great majority of available rebounds, not fouling and giving up easy points at the free throw line, and improving its turnover percentage greatly. That all leads to a top 25 defense and it was evident as the Cyclones closed the game against K-State on Saturday.

In their final 11 opportunities to score in the last 2:52 of the game, the Wildcats scored a jumper with 1:43 and made a meaningless layup with 12 seconds to play. A great majority of time in the final three minutes was spent on the defensive end and Kansas State only notched four points.

This year’s team doesn’t have the same offense as it has in year’s past, though it is at 28th in Ken Pomeroy’s adjusted offensive efficiency, it doesn’t have to be as good. The offense can be elite when the shots are falling and the movement is clicking, but as a whole it has been inconsistent. However that can more easily be overcome when the team can do what it needs to on the defensive end.