Oct 25, 2016; Kansas City, MO, USA; Iowa State Cyclones head coach Steve Prohm address the media during the Big 12 Basketball Media Day at the Sprint Center. Mandatory Credit: Peter G. Aiken-USA TODAY Sports
AMES — Playing stern and disruptive defense comes naturally to Nick Weiler-Babb.
It’s why his Iowa State teammates raved about his abilities on that end of the floor during his sit-out year — and it’s also why the skilled Arkansas transfer’s uniquely qualified to gauge the overall progress on defense the No. 24 Cyclones have made in the preseason.
“We have a whole new energy about defense,” said Weiler-Babb, who hopes to help lead ISU to a season-opening win against run-and-gun Savannah State Friday at 7 p.m. (Cyclones.tv) at Hilton Coliseum. “We’re kind of looking for defense to get a couple points on offense easy. We know we can score on the offensive end, but on defense if we can get any little steals, lay ups, fast break points as we can get, I think that will help us that much more.”
Here’s the thing: The arguably deeper, but obviously Georges Niang (and Abdel Nader and Jameel McKay)-less Cyclones don’t have to be stellar on defense.
They merely need to be better.
Few expect their elite offensive numbers to drop off, so steady gains on the defensive end will, on paper at least, lead to greater results in and out of Big 12 Conference play.
“I just want it to try to be when we get to the Big 12, instead of being nine-10, our goal is if we can be five,” said ISU coach Steve Prohm, who guided his team to the Sweet 16 in his first season at the helm. “I know KenPom and all those breakdowns, but when you really look at the nuts and bolts, throw KenPom out the window, what are you statistically in the league? If we can just move up — were not going to go from nine-10 to one-two. That’s just not going to happen. But if we can get better and move up to that four-five-six range, that’s going to help our offense.”
By the end of last season, KenPom ranked the Cyclones a middling 91st in adjusted defensive efficiency. Entering this season, ISU’s pegged at 60th — a marked jump, if it can be maintained or improved upon.
“I think we’re getting better defensively,” Prohm said. “It’s still hard to tell, but I think just the understanding and the concepts, I think we’re getting better. I think we played at the pace we want to play at offensively, I think they’re starting to understand that, and then the leadership — I think our seniors have been terrific. If they can continue to have that kind of leadership and we can really continue to stress being good defensively and continue to grow in that area, but then continue to convert quickly from defense to offense, that’s the one thing we can do. We can get that ball up the floor in a hurry and we can really make shots.”
The Tigers — who drained 20 3-pointers in their most recent 123-108 exhibition win over Armstrong State — could test ISU’s defense right out of the gate.
They’re expected to play a fast-paced style, which will challenge the Cyclones both in transition and around the perimeter.
“They play hard,” Prohm said. “They’re very, very athletic. They’re going to put pressure on you basically the whole game. We’ve got to do a great job of taking care of the ball, getting back in transition, but the one thing they can do, you watch tape on them, they can spread you out and they can really make shots, so we’ve got to do a good job of keeping the ball in front, but at the same point contesting shots.”
ISU performed well in those areas in its 101-57 exhibition win Sunday over Sioux Falls. The Cyclones drained 15 of 26 3-point attempts, collected 14 steals (Deonte Burton had a team-high six) and held the Cougars to 32.4 percent shooting.
It’s that last number that evinces the most pride from ISU’s players — even it’s top shooters.
Defense is front and center now. The offense will take care of itself.
“It’s the emphasis,” said sharpshooting senior Naz Mitrou-Long, who sank 6 of 10 from beyond the arc en route to a team-best 24 points against Sioux Falls. “We have to get better. Our non-conference schedule is a really good schedule in our eyes and it’s just going to set us up for conference play. Everybody knows that the Big 12 is one of, if not the best league(s) in the country, so if you don’t rebound and you don’t play D and do things that other teams don’t do, you’re not going to win. We’re smaller so we need to do those things. That’s just where we’ve got to get better.”