The Cyclone offense is kind of one of those mystical things where many people realize that it is very, very good and they can point to things like spacing, versatility, exploiting mismatches and 3-point shooting, but for the most part we don’t often dive into the details.
We know that Georges Niang can kill defenses from everywhere. We know that Naz Long is a sniper from the outside. We’ve seen the damage the Dustin Hogue can do in the paint. We know that Bryce Dejean-Jones is an athletic freak that can get to the rim and decimate a defense when his 3-point shot is falling. And we know that Monte Morris is a top flight point guard that can steer the whole operation to perfection.
One major aspect of the Cyclone attack is the use of ball screens and specifically the high screen and roll above the top of the key. This is most often done with Niang as the screener. As I watched the Iowa game this past Friday, I couldn’t help but notice that the Cyclones went to that well again and again and it was usually successful. What was interesting though was the evolution of the attack against how Iowa defended it.
Below are video clips in chronological order as they unfolded in the game and it shows almost every way to score out of this situation (almost). The one key with all of these to watch starts at the very beginning with the spacing. Most often, there’s a shooter in each corner or near the wing and a guy like Dustin Hogue hiding out in the short corner near the baseline on the same side that the screen is taking place.
(A huge thanks to AtownCy for making the Vines for me, he’s always posting ISU highlights on Twitter and he’s generally awesome, so go give him a follow.)
1st half – 4:50 – Iowa State 25 Iowa 24
Niang sets the screen for Morris and Woodbury gives a pretty weak hedge (showing quickly to slow down the ball handler before switching back to recover with the other defender involved) to contain the penetration. That may be in part because Woodbury was concerned with closing out to Niang to contest a 3-point shot should he get it. But once Morris turned the corner Iowa was stuck with Gesell helping down off Long (would’ve left an open three) or Uthoff sliding over to help. Gesell did a jab and recover while Uthoff came to help and it left Hogue with an open layup as Aaron White was two steps late on his rotation.
2nd half – 17:50 – Iowa State 43 Iowa 35
This one it is a bit of an impromptu screen set by Niang almost as a part of the secondary transition break so the spacing is a bit off. Mainly because two guys are set to shoot on the opposite side but they are spaced out well to spread the defense. Hogue is again on the block, but this time opposite the side of the floor where the screen is set.
This time Woodbury offers a bit more resistance but he essentially sets a screen on Clemmons so he can’t recover in time to cut off Morris. However, White slides over to help and Uthoff who is guarding Nader in the corner is already inside of Hogue to complete the rotation. That could’ve resulted in a wide open 3-pointer for Nader in the corner had Niang not so easily beaten Woodbury to the rim after the screen. That’s a lot of ground for a seven-footer to cover and a lot of pressure on the defense at other spots to make the right decision.
2nd half – 16:37 – Iowa State 49 Iowa 35
This time, Iowa tries a different method. Instead of a light hedge Olaseni and Clemmons try to trap off the screen. It appears to work until Morris splits the defense and basically creates a four on three opportunity for Iowa State.
Jok flashes at Niang but Clemmons recovers to pick up Hogue on the nearside. But since Jok overplays Niang with the ball, White is forced to slide up as well, leaving Gesell to rotate down to cover Nader who very smartly cuts to the hoop when White helps. And voila a wide open 3-point shot for Naz on the opposite wing.
The trap seemed like it may work but it also sent Iowa’s defense into scramble mode with one mistake (the Jok overplay) but a properly spaced offense that moves the ball can be a buzz saw in those situations, like this one.
2nd half – 14:46 – Iowa State 56 Iowa 35
This time, Iowa State is in a five-out look with not a soul around the rim to really open up lanes and stretch out the defense. Jok is defending Nader who is furthest from the ball so he is appropriately near the middle of the lane. Olaseni gave a decent hedge but once again they appeared to be very concerned with Niang popping instead of rolling after his pick.
As soon as Morris gets to the paint Jok is in the spot he should be to help but Clemmons sucked in too far off of Naz Long. Morris potentially could have gone straight to Nader but opted for Long on the wing who then quickly swung the ball to Nader with Clemmons closing out hard.
It all ends with an Abdel Nader 3-pointer.
2nd half – 14:07 – Iowa State 59 Iowa 37
This one starts off with another five-out look and not a single Cyclone in or near the paint. It’s also a bit trickier for Iowa to defend this one because it starts off with Niang dribbling into a handoff with Naz Long which puts the defense off balance a bit from the start.
This time, the Iowa defense stays at home relatively well but Olaseni is forced to help off on the screen and doesn’t hedge immediately to force Long away from the rim. Clemmons gets hung up on the Niang screen and Olaseni is caught in the middle leaving Niang for the open three. What’s interesting here and in almost all of these clips is that on the play ISU has at least one more viable option that is open but in this case Morris on the wing and Hogue in the corner are both spotted up in space with the defense sagging in the lane.
2nd half – 13:26 – Iowa State 62 Iowa 39
With Morris starting out so high on the court and ISU still spread across the 3-point line the Iowa defense is really spaced out and ready for a gashing. Maybe it’s the 23 point lead but Olaseni doesn’t even appear to try and help on defense.
Jok halfway slides over to help with about the same level of commitment but Gesell does rotate to cover up Hogue. Jok lazily rotated Morris easily had the driving lane to the hoop. This is a similar action that led to the Hogue layup in the first clip though Morris wasn’t challenged enough to be forced to dish. But once again look at how wide open Naz Long is on the nearside wing and how open Nader is on the opposite wing.
A lot of things went poorly for Iowa on Friday, starting with the string of turnovers and poor offense that led to easy transition buckets for Iowa State to blow the doors off the game. But the center of it all was the Cyclone pick and roll game. Iowa couldn’t handle the ball screen action and the Cyclone spacing finished the job because on every play and every action there are options for ISU.
This series of clips didn’t even get to Niang slipping screens when his defender overplays the hedge though the resulting action would be very similar to the third clip above.
The aforementioned spacing is one of the biggest keys outside of capable guys to make the defense pay but the two biggest cogs in this are Niang and his threat to pop instead of roll to knockdown threes and Morris’s ability to consistently make the correct read and execute.
That’s how the Cyclones use the pick and roll go surgically defeat defenses repeatedly but it’s still only one facet of the offense. This doesn’t consider any of the matchup exploitation that Fred Hoiberg implements so seamlessly in his offense (which is really, really hard to do) or Hogue isolations at the elbow, or Niang doing Niang things, and Dejean-Jones is nowhere to be seen in the clips.
So yeah, the Cyclone offense is pretty good.