Now, the real season begins — and, with a bang.
Believe it or not, these opportunities don’t come often. Since the 1998-99 season, Iowa State has played road games against top five teams on just 10 occasions, winning three of them. But they haven’t played a top five opponent on the road since the Texas game on February 22nd, 2011.
Oklahoma is the country’s third ranked team and they’ve earned it with early wins and big performances as they have climbed to the top of KenPom’s rankings where they have been waffling between No. 1 and No. 2, usually with Kansas.
Oklahoma is undefeated at 11-0 and their best win has likely been their 23-point shellacking of Villanova but they also have decent wins at Memphis and at Hawaii while manhandling Wisconsin at home.
The new season is the Big 12 title race where heading into the year it looked like a trio of teams vying for a title, including the perennial winner Kansas. But as the season has gone on, Kansas and Oklahoma have ever so slightly separated themselves ahead of Iowa State and if you polled national guys right now, I’m not sure many would mention Iowa State as having much of a chance.
I think that would be a mistake. But for a Cyclone team that has been so highly regarded for two full years now that has let on that maybe they’ve struggled with being the favorite instead of the chippy underdog, maybe that is just what is needed.
*All stats per KenPom.com
When the Sooners have the ball…
Oklahoma is 12th in adjusted scoring efficiency, which is largely bolstered by their great shooting, specifically from behind the 3-point line where they are hitting on an insane 46 percent of their attempts. Oklahoma keeps the turnovers low and is a bit above average on the offensive glass.
They get to the free throw line at a rate that puts them in the middle of the NCAA pack and they hit on 71 percent of attempts from the stripe.
One surprise to me is that while their turnover rate isn’t all that bad, they have been susceptible to steals with the 220th best offensive steal rate in the country. Perhaps that is due to reserves playing extended minutes in their many blowouts because their primary guys have pretty low turnover rates, but that is something to keep an eye on.
The Cyclone defense has been better than you’d probably think at 67th in adjusted scoring. They are pretty average in terms of how well opponents are shooting the ball but they help the cause by forcing an okay (but improved over recent years) number of turnovers, winning the defensive glass, and keeping teams off the free throw line better than any other in the country.
The talk is likely going to be the opponent 3-point percentage as Coppin State just lit the Cyclones up for 17-30 from deep when they came into the game as just a 29 percent shooting team from distance. That has added fuel to the fire of the debate on the “randomness” of opponent 3-point percentage but the bigger focus is eliminating the attempts at all. And right now, opponents are getting 3-point looks whenever they want. You can justify allowing those against cupcakes, but it is probably time to make an adjustment against top notch competition. Chasing shooters off the line and closing out well and on time, and slowing dribble penetration but rotating quickly and crisply when it happens will never be more important.
Though in the last two games, Iowa State has played with a renewed sense of urgency more often than not, and especially early, on the defensive end; an urgency that had kind of disappeared since the opening game of the year against Colorado.
It is also worth noting the defensive steal rate for Iowa State slowly creeping up the rankings and what I said above about Oklahoma. This is a new level of competition but if the Cyclones can create some live ball turnovers that will lead to some easy buckets that are always useful, especially on the road.
When the Cyclones have the ball…
ISU has the 14th best adjusted scoring rate, largely from their shooting success inside the arc and near elimination of turnovers. The offensive rebounding rate isn’t great but there has been a trend lately of more success on the offensive glass. The Cyclones grab 29 percent of rebounds on the offensive end on average and the national average is 30.3 percent. But, in four of the last five outings the Cyclones have been above 35 percent and those are the four best marks on the season.
The Sooner defense has been their surprising strength to many in the past season and a half where they allow an adjusted .91 points per possession, the sixth best in the country. They’re a pretty good rebounding team that keeps teams off of the free throw line.
But the best part of their defense has been forcing teams into shots they cannot make, or, at least often have not made. Opponents are making less than 30 percent of their 3-point attempts but more telling is the fact that they’re making just 40 percent of shots inside the arc.
The other main factor to look at with the Sooner defense is the assist rate they have held teams to. Given how much opponents have struggled to score and make easy shots, that really indicates to me that they have really disrupted offenses.
Who to watch…
Mainly, Buddy Hield. The Sooners obviously have other good players but it all starts with “Buddy Ball”. A versatile, athletic scoring machine that plays very intelligently and can put an avalanche of points on opponents in a hurry. He does it all, and he does it all well.
His backcourt mates Isaiah Cousins and Jordan Woodard have also been having banner seasons from the three-point line, 21-46 and 24-46 respectively. But they’re also creating at a very high level for a tandem as both have assist rates above 20 percent.
Ryan Spangler is back and ready to incite more boos and gray hairs from fans while he’s up to his normal tricks. An absolute nuisance that plays hard, plays smart, and this year, he’s been hitting from outside the arc (11-23).
Khadeem Lattin is the other big and the only new starter from last season and he’s essentially a Spangler clone that scores a little bit less.
Dinjiyl Walker, Akolda Manyang, and Dante Buford are the next main guys off the bench but really, Oklahoma isn’t a lot different than Iowa State when it comes to depth. I think they’ve just played a few more guys in blowouts and had more blowouts to do so.
The matchups, game keys, and what I think…
Jameel McKay and Georges Niang will draw the two bigs, though I’m not sure it matters much on exactly which one. It will be a battle keeping them off the glass and McKay will have to be smart about contesting shots and leaving offensive rebounding chances open for Oklahoma.
The intrigue comes with Buddy Hield. It is likely that Matt Thomas and Abdel Nader will each get a crack at him but I’d think Matt would start on him. Matt can keep up with him on the perimeter a bit better and keep the gap small to hopefully contest the three-point shot and not give up much penetration. But most importantly, you cannot help off of Hield if a teammate is beat off the dribble. That will be up to the bigs to be alert, active, and to cover up on rotations.
That probably puts Nader on Cousins where he will have to keep him out of the paint and keep him in sight on the perimeter. Iowa State can’t afford to give up easy open looks over blown assignments and poor fundamentals. And really, the goal is the same for Monte Morris on Woodard.
Defensive strategies against teams with star players like this vary from coach to coach and we probably don’t know Prohm well enough to know how he’ll play it, but you always have to decide between trying to eliminate the opponent’s best option or live with him while not letting everyone else beat you.
I’m normally in the latter camp, but Hield can be such a catalyst for their offense and team as an entirety that I think you need to try and shut him down as best as possible. That will require shading help defense to his side and hedging/bumping him off of screens a bit more that could leave some slipped screens and gaps on the weak side. Personally, I think the risk is worth it because of the overall trade off.
Last year in Norman, OU had some real success by putting Hield on Niang and eliminating his playmaking ability from the perimeter. His quickness was too much for Georges to overcome off the bounce away from the hoop. If they try that again, it has to be exploited on the block and in the high post. Hield is strong enough to battle with Niang on the block and it can’t be forced but Georges has to take advantage if that happens and be patient if double teams come.
If that happens, then Spangler or Lattin will be put on Nader and the opposite scenario shows up. Getting Nader in some isolation situations where he attacks, and doesn’t settle for long jump shots, will be an advantage for Iowa State. If Hield doesn’t guard Niang he’ll likely have to get Nader and the above is still true, just with Nader on the block and Niang outside.
Deonte Burton is another major factor on the offensive end that will require some attention from the Oklahoma defense and the mismatch he can create.
Iowa State’s shooting inside the arc and keeping Oklahoma from attempting three-pointers at the other end are the biggest battle ground stats to watch that will key a win or a loss for either team.
The last big key to me is the offensive glass at each end, can the Cyclones continue the trend of creating extra chances on offense and not fear the Oklahoma transition game? Can Iowa State eliminate Spangler, Lattin, and Manyang from the offensive glass and especially scrambles that can find open shots on the perimeter?
I’m not one that buys into the “will to win” or “knowing how to win” or “leadership when things get tough” propelling teams to victory, but I do believe that a certain mindset of persistence and mental toughness to stay focused on the task at hand to continue to grind through adversity and make good decisions is a very real thing, especially in road games.
In Cincinnati, when it got down to it the Cyclones were able to continually battle and make good decisions and execute down the stretch.
That’s a tangible thing that matters.
Conference play hasn’t started yet and it seems like the pundits are so gung ho over the Kansas – Oklahoma battles that they have already begun to write Iowa State off. In a sense, this is a game that has all of the pressure on the home team, especially when they travel to Lawrence the next day for a pivotal game in the conference race.
There has never been a better time to come out swinging with no fear of the repercussions and just letting the chips fall where they may.
I think the Cyclones will have a good showing and be in the game throughout. Perhaps a run in the last few minutes will give some separation to OU before Iowa State makes a last gasp effort that will come up just short. But if ISU can control Hield a bit and prevent others from going off behind the arc then I think the Cyclone offense is good enough to have a chance. If Iowa State is hot from the three-point line, they’ll really have a chance.
But unfortunately I think that Iowa State will start off the quest for a conference crown with a tough road loss to a main adversary for their goal.