Haaland: Diagnosing defense

Feb 25, 2020; Ames, Iowa, USA; TCU Horned Frogs guard Edric Dennis (2) goes to the basket between Iowa State Cyclones forward Solomon Young (33) and guard Rasir Bolton (45) at Hilton Coliseum. The Cyclones beat the Horned Frogs 65 to 59. Mandatory Credit: Reese Strickland-USA TODAY Sports

The struggles for the Iowa State basketball team this season have been discussed in great length but while the focus is often on the offense, the defensive side of the ball has been where the biggest issues have been caused. Defense can be harder to pinpoint the exact problem though, in larger part because there really aren’t reliable numbers to evaluate defense at the individual level. But, with what we have all seen so far this year, I want to bring to light the three biggest factors in the scoring allowed that happen somewhat outside of the framework of the defensive scheme itself.


Whether you believe me or not, statistically it has more or less been proven that the percentage of jump shots a team makes is more or less random. There are a few cases where defensive systems under certain coaches have been able to break that trend where they exhibit a slight bit more control over whether or not shots go in, but for the most part, it is random on the defensive side of the ball. Sometimes they go in and sometimes you luck out and they miss.

That can be unsatisfying, I know. It flies in the face of what the coaches and players will say in the post-game interviews on a day when opponents were hot from long range, but that doesn’t make it any less true.

The most impactful thing a defense can do is limit 3-point attempts altogether. This year’s team is very much middle of the pack with opponent 3-point rate coming in at 175th in attempt rate (3FGA/FGA) but opponents are cashing in on 36.5 percent of their tries, the 314th worst in college basketball. For comparison, Michigan State allows essentially the same number of attempts but opponents are making just 28.8 percent of them. That is a catastrophic difference. 

Is that all due to bad luck? Probably not. But is it unreasonable to think that there is some bad luck involved and manifesting in a very bad way? I don’t think so.


One of the biggest failings of this year’s team has been their defensive rebounding. It is killer for many obvious reasons but their 324th defensive rebounding percentage has contributed greatly to their 139th rated defense on Of course, the biggest reason this deficiency needs to be highlighted is that Iowa State has spent much of the season playing with two bigs, primarily Mike Jacobson at the four. If you’re going to play big and lose spacing on offense and mobility defending the perimeter you have to excel in rebounding, and that hasn’t happened.

Allowing offensive rebounds gives second chances to score, extends the length of having to guard, can be crippling psychologically, but offensive putbacks from missed shots are statistically one of the most efficient ways to score.

Per Synergy Sports Tech, scoring immediately following an offensive rebound for Big 12 teams this year has been the second most efficient way to score at 0.9 points per possession. On average, the other nine Big 12 teams allow a putback attempt on about 6.5 percent of total scoring attempts but for Iowa State, that number is 7.2 percent. When this situation does arise, Iowa State does very poorly in defending the offensive rebound and opponents score 1.1 points per possession. 

So not only do the Cyclones allow this scenario 0.7 percent of the time more often, but when it does happen, they give up an extra 0.2 points per attempt. It seems small but it doesn’t take long for that to add up and impact close games.


Scoring in the open court in transition is one of the easiest ways for teams to put up points without having to battle against a set half-court defense. Per Synergy, Big 12 teams average 0.1 more points per possession in transition than they do in half-court defense and the other nine Big 12 teams are in this situation on about 13 percent of defensive possessions, meanwhile, Iowa State faces it on about 14 percent of possessions.

Interestingly, Iowa State has a mediocre turnover percentage so one would think this wouldn’t happen so often but when you break it down by live-ball turnovers versus dead-ball turnovers you can quickly see why there are so many chances for transition scoring. Iowa State averages the 18th fewest dead-ball turnovers but they are 299th in opponent steal rate.

Not only do the Cyclones allow this circumstance more often they struggle with it more to exacerbate the problem even further. The Cyclones allow an extra 0.2 points per possession than the league average to quickly compound the problem.

Those are just three big things that are mostly outside of the scope of a defensive scheme that are really hurting the Cyclones on the defensive end. All of that is before you even start discussing how the game plan on defense looks or should look. 

Opponent 3-pointers are a bit unlucky.

Rebounding can be discipline and effort or a result of over-helping or not helping at all in rotations.

Live ball turnovers from poor decisions, carelessness, and a lack of offensive movement with a purpose.

If those more fundamental items were shored up, the defense would be in a much better place.

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