Dec 9, 2021; Ames, Iowa, USA; Iowa State Cyclones forward Aljaz Kunc (5) grabs a rebound against the Iowa Hawkeyes at James H. Hilton Coliseum. Mandatory Credit: Reese Strickland-USA TODAY Sports
Time: 7 p.m.
Location: Iowa City, Iowa
Vegas Line: Iowa -4.5 (at publication)
KenPom Prediction: 73-67, Iowa
1 – Strength vs. Strength
Nobody in college basketball has done a better job of forcing turnovers so far this season than Iowa State. The Cyclones are forcing teams into giveaways on 30.3 percent of their possessions this season.
Nobody in college basketball has done a better job of taking care of the basketball this season than Iowa. The Hawkeyes turn the ball over on only 12.6 percent of their possessions.
Both of those numbers lead the nation. Something has to give.
Iowa State will need to force Iowa into those turnovers in order to operate at its peak level. Otzelberger’s team is at its best when they’re using their ball pressure and in-tune rotations to speed teams up.
This will certainly be Iowa State’s biggest defensive test to date, though. The Hawkeyes enter Thursday night’s game No. 6 nationally in adjusted offensive efficiency, according to KenPom.
“They do a good job of continuing to vary up their offense,” Otzelberger said. “They’re not predictable, and a lot of guys are in different spots. I think the ball pressure will really be a big component for us so they can’t just stand and pass to guys and they’re constantly under duress.”
It will also be key for Iowa State to be disciplined on their own offensive end in order to avoid live ball turnovers that turn into easy transition opportunities for the Hawkeyes.
Iowa is going to look to run before Iowa State can set its defense, but it will be interesting to see how the Hawkeyes choose to attack the Cyclones in the half-court.
Iowa State’s defense thrives on the ability to speed teams up and force them into either turning the ball over or taking difficult contested shots from the perimeter.
On Iowa’s side, they’ll be looking to stay disciplined offensively in their own right to make sure they’re taking the right shots rather than the first open shot they can find.
“They do a good job in transition advancing the ball ahead,” Otzelberger said. “If you’re not disciplined sprinting back and, and getting everybody loaded to the basketball, they create some advantage situations. They do a great job of not letting the ball rest, continuing to move it and give their offense space.”
2 – Just like his brother
Iowa State was the only team to hold the Hawkeyes’ star forward Keegan Murray to less than 10 points last season when these two teams met in Ames. It was a virtuoso defensive performance against one of the most dangerous players in all of college basketball.
A similar challenge presents itself on Thursday in the form of Keegan’s twin brother, Kris, who has been one of the breakout stars of the season to this point. Through eight games, he’s averaging 19.4 points and 10.1 rebounds per game, indicating he’s picked up right where his brother left off.
“I’d say that the thing that’s in common is their confidence as they both kind of stepped up to be go-to guys,” Otzelberger said when asked to compare the brothers. “I think both have been extremely impactful. As far as differences go, man, I don’t know. There are a lot of commonalities in how confident they’re playing, how they’re shooting the basketball, how they rebound the basketball and how they score the ball. From my vantage point, there’s a lot more of the parallels and the similarities than there are the differences.”
Another weird parallel is the health situation for Kris going into this game. One year after Keegan was limited with an ankle injury in this rivalry, Kris was seen wearing a walking boot on Wednesday after an injury suffered in the Hawkeyes’ loss to Duke earlier this week.
Cyclone fans shouldn’t get their hopes up that Murray won’t play at all, but the question will be how limited he is by being banged up. He was severely slowed in the game against the Blue Devils, tallying a season-low eight points in 36 minutes.
Iowa State will have to do its best to keep Murray uncomfortable, pushing him away from the spots he wants to get on the floor and making it difficult for him to catch once he gets to his spots. I’d expect to see the Cyclones throw several different defenders and a lot of different looks at Murray to try and wear him out with physicality and intensity.
3 – The battle in the middle
As good as the guards in this game will be, this feels like the kind of game that will be won or lost in the paint. This will be a bring your hard hat and lunch pail kind of basketball game.
Expect to see Iowa State work the ball into the middle early and often, especially when Robert Jones is in the game. Jones’ emergence as a true back-to-the-basket threat along with the addition of Osun Osunniyi has allowed the Cyclones to be considerably more balanced offensively than they were a year ago.
“It’s caused our offense to be more physical,” Otzelberger said. “It’s prevented our guards from feeling like to have to make heroic jump shots at the end of the clock. It’s given us something where teams are switching, that we’re able to go inside and take advantage of a mismatch. So it’s been really impactful and something we need to continue to be stubborn and mentally tough to do.”
Establishing a tone of physicality early on in the game will be huge for the Cyclones, especially on the road. One of the game’s true swing dynamics will be officiating.
If Iowa State is allowed to defend how they want to, I like how the Cyclones match-up in this game a lot. If they’re being called for touch fouls early and the whistle is clearly swinging the home team’s way, it could be a long night.
No matter how some of these intricacies shake out, you can feel confident this will be a great game with an electric atmosphere and stakes that feel much bigger than they should in the month of December.
So, buckle up, grab your hard hat, lunch pail and don’t forget the popcorn.
“If you’re a competitor, you want these environments, you want these challenges,” Otzelberger said. “Those games are great for you.”