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Neighbors Growing Together | Nov 27, 2014

Tremendous start for ISU, Iowa hoops

By Andy Hallman | Jan 09, 2014

If you live in Iowa and you like basketball, I have great news for you. You are in the prime of your life. Treasure these moments, because they don’t come around very often.

The Cyclones and Hawkeyes have terrific men’s and women’s basketball teams. All four of them are ranked in the Top 25. The Iowa State men and women are both perfect on the season and boast a combined record of 28-0.

 

Iowa State Cyclones

(14-0, 2-0 in conference)

The Cyclone men have already set school records for the best start to a season with their 13th win, and then broke the record for the most consecutive wins when they thumped Baylor Tuesday for their 14th win in a row. It has left Iowa State fans wondering just how high the ceiling is on this year’s team.

Before Saturday’s game against Texas Tech I predicted the Cyclones would go 12-6 in the conference and finish in third place behind conference champion Kansas and runner-up Baylor. I expected they would go 7-2 at home and 5-4 on the road, and I felt that was a pretty bullish prediction at the time since the ‘Clones were 11-7 last year with a disappointing 3-6 record away from Hilton Coliseum.

Here’s my rationale behind that prediction: Iowa State has gone 8-1 at home in conference play the last two years. That included several buzzer-beating victories against Oklahoma State and Kansas State in 2012 and against West Virginia a year ago. So it seemed the Cyclones’ record was a little better than they were really playing. Considering the Big XII is stronger this year than it has been in recent years, I feared my alma mater would drop a pair at home.

At the same time, the ‘Clones have been on the losing end of last-second shots on the road. Some of those, such as last year’s loss at Kansas when Ben McLemore banked in a three to tie the game, just seemed like bad luck. However, many of those heartbreaking losses were precipitated by poor late-game defense by Iowa State, which surrendered easy buckets to avoid fouling. This year’s team plays much better defense than either of Fred Hoiberg’s NCAA Tournament teams of the past two years, which is why they will be able to win close games on the road.

One of the games I thought Iowa State could lose was against a Baylor team that, on paper, did just about everything right. Their big men tower over the Cyclones’ fairly small front court, and they can burn you from deep as they are shooting a league-leading 43 percent from beyond the arc.

Things didn’t look good for Hoiberg’s squad when the Bears made three threes in a row to start the game. That’s when Iowa State’s DeAndre Kane put the team on his back and proceeded to score 15 of the Cyclones’ first 19 points. Meanwhile, the Bears continued their hot shooting from three-point land but their big men didn’t respond well to the Cyclones’ double-teams as Baylor turned the ball over 19 times. The Cyclones pulled away from the visitors in the second half to win 87-72 in a surprisingly lop-sided game between two Top 10 teams.

Am I willing to revise my prediction after Iowa State’s convincing win Tuesday? Is Iowa State the new favorite to win the Big XII Conference? I was ready to say “yes” until I watched Kansas score at-will Wednesday in a 90-83 road win against a quality Oklahoma team. Kansas played a brutal non-conference schedule in which they lost four games, all to teams that are now ranked. Kansas is really young and maybe lacking at the point guard position but they have a couple of future NBA players in Andrew Wiggins and Joel Embiid, so I still expect them to be the team to beat.

Iowa State’s greatest strength is that they present match-up problems at multiple positions. Few point guards in the country are as big and strong as Kane. That showed in the win against Baylor, in which Kane ran circles around the Bears’ smaller point guard, Kenny Chery.

The forwards are a nightmare to guard, too. Melvin Ejim, Georges Niang and Dustin Hogue can hurt you in the post and can step back to knock down threes. I never cease to be amazed at how easily Niang scores in the paint. Hoiberg once said Niang’s vertical was the size of a credit card, and that’s not too far from the truth. He’s certainly not the most athletic guy on the court but he has terrific footwork, which allows him to score over much taller defenders.

Many Cyclone fans have been underwhelmed at the performance of freshman shooting guard Matt Thomas. Thomas was a highly touted three-point specialist who is making 36 percent of his shots from distance. He seems to be a bit timid, choosing to shoot only when he is wide open. However, he is only a freshman and he’s playing on a team of very capable scorers, so it’s good he doesn’t feel the pressure to be the “go-to guy” so early in his career. I like that Fred is starting him to build his confidence without actually playing him too much (he’s averaging 26 minutes per game). Besides, Iowa State is deep at the guard position anyway with an outstanding back-up point guard in Monté Morris and a deadly shooter in Naz Long.

The only thing that keeps me up at night about this team is whether Fred can develop a deeper front line. Iowa State’s starting forwards are great but there’s a huge drop off when they have to sit for foul trouble. The coach hasn’t given significant minutes to either Daniel Edozie or Percy Gibson, both of whom are decent shot-blockers and rebounders but who have not established themselves as scoring threats.

 

Iowa Hawkeyes

(12-3, 1-1 in conference)

The Iowa Hawkeyes are having one of their best seasons in a decade. Their three losses are all to teams now ranked in the Top 10 (Iowa State, Villanova and Wisconsin). All of those games were winnable and Hawkeye fans might say their team should have won all three.

I honestly couldn’t believe that Villanova was able to hang with them so long considering the Wildcats’ poor offensive execution and shot selection. The Hawkeyes consistently forced Villanova to take contested threes, and it looked for the longest time that Iowa was going to pull it out. But, my goodness, I’ve never seen a team play defense as tenaciously as Villanova. That, combined with some hot shooting from deep late in the game, gave the Wildcats the “w.”

When Iowa made the trip to Hilton Coliseum in December, I was feeling pretty uneasy as a Cyclone fan. In last year’s game, the ‘Clones had no answer for the height and athleticism of Aaron White, and it didn’t look like this year’s team would have an answer, either. It didn’t.

White got one easy basket after another, some of them on alley-oop dunks, as the Hawkeyes built a 10-point lead in the second half. Roy Devyn Marble stepped up his game, too. In the first half, he settled for jumpers and wasn’t much of a factor. In the second stanza, he attacked the basket like a man possessed. Every time the Cyclones made a run, the Hawkeyes had an answer. I think it also surprised Iowa State how well Iowa’s big men ran the floor as the Cyclones were often late to get back on defense and gave up several fast-break points.

Iowa had a chance to seal this game at the free throw line but instead they went ice cold, going 1-6 down the stretch. Meanwhile, Iowa State, which had been shooting terribly from the line earlier in the game, made its free throws when they mattered, giving the Cyclones an 85-82 victory.

We can’t overlook the stat of the night, which was that Iowa State went to the free throw line 15 more times and made nine more free throws than Iowa. I think this has more to do with defensive strategies than it does with a conspiracy on the referees’ part to give the game to Iowa State. Iowa State was simply less aggressive on the defensive end. Iowa was more aggressive in general, especially on the glass, where they crushed the Cyclones 49-35. Iowa is one of the deepest teams in the country, and it can afford to play that way. Eleven guys on the team are good enough to play double-digit minutes every game. Iowa State goes seven deep comfortably, so it doesn’t have that luxury, which is why it can’t afford to foul. For most of the game, Iowa’s strategy paid off as Iowa State struggled to convert at the foul line. In the end, Hilton Magic willed the Cyclones to victory.

I’ve watched several Iowa games this year and in every game I’ve seen they looked like the more talented team. I could easily see the Hawkeyes finishing fourth in the Big 10 this year, and that’s saying something when three of the teams are ranked in the Top 5 (Wisconsin, Ohio State and Michigan State). With that stiff competition, a Big 10 title is probably out of reach for Fran McCaffery’s club.

Last year’s Hawkeyes played well for most of the season but lacked a signature win, one of the reasons they had to settle for postseason play in the NIT. Iowa had an opportunity to bag a huge win Sunday at No. 4 Wisconsin. The Hawkeyes stunned the Badger faithful for the first 20 minutes of the game as they took a 35-24 lead into halftime.

Wisconsin chipped away at Iowa’s lead early in the second half. The play of the game occurred eight minutes into the second half when Iowa’s Gabriel Olaseni was called for a ticky-tack foul against Nigel Hayes, after the referees missed a call on the other end when Hayes appeared to foul Olaseni. Fran went berserk on the referees, bumping into one of them and receiving two technical fouls, resulting in his ejection. The Badgers were able to put five points on the board on that sole possession for a 44-41 lead.

I know complaining about the refs is an age-old pastime in basketball, but as an independent observer I just didn’t see a clear bias from the referees over the course of the game. Both the call against Olaseni and the no-call against Hayes were bad but there were plenty of calls that went against the Badgers, too. Had Bo Ryan wanted to explode at the refs he had opportunities to do so.

At the time, I wondered whether Fran was getting the technical fouls on purpose to motivate his team to regain the momentum. Kansas’s coach Bill Self does that from time to time and it seems to work well for his team. However, by being ejected, Fran gave his team the impression that the wheels were coming off and that all was lost, when in reality the Hawkeyes still had a 41-39 lead. I think the Hawkeyes would have beaten the Badgers in the absence of that outburst.

Fortunately, Iowa will have many more chances for a signature win this year. Iowa has perhaps the most difficult schedule in the Big 10. Since there are 12 teams in the conference, the league does not play a round robin schedule like the Big XII where everyone plays each other twice. That means some years will be harder than others, and this year is especially hard for the Hawkeyes.

Iowa has to play the three best teams twice. Ouch. Iowa also has to play Minnesota and Illinois twice, and they’re no slouches, either. Teams that figure to finish in the bottom half of the league such as Nebraska, Purdue, Penn State and Indiana only play the Hawks once.

How can the Hawkeyes finish strong with such a punishing schedule? They have to play up-tempo, both on the defensive and offensive ends. Few teams can put in five fresh players after a timeout, but the Hawkeyes can and they need to use that to their advantage by running other teams out of the gym.

The Hawkeyes don’t seem to have many weaknesses. They rebound well, they play great defense, they can hit threes and they’re great in transition. Marble is one of the greatest players in Iowa history. White is impossible to guard and the return of Josh Oglesby gives the Hawks yet another outside threat. Although he’s gone cold recently, Zach McCabe is one of the best three-point shooters on the team (39 percent), and he’s one of their bigs.

One of the things I worry about with this Iowa team is the development of center Adam Woodbury. Woodbury is a giant, standing at 7 feet, 1 inch. He has proven to be effective around the rim – when he can stay on the floor. He’s had a huge problem picking up fouls so he’s lost a lot of playing time to Olaseni and Jarrod Uthoff. For Iowa, that might not be so bad considering how productive those two have been thus far.

The other question mark hanging over this team is whether it has the mental toughness to close out games. And I’m not just talking about the players missing key free throws against Iowa State. I’m talking about the coaching staff, too. Can Fran maintain his team’s composure, and his own, after bad calls? We’ll have to wait and see.

 

– Andy Hallman is the news editor of The Fairfield Ledger

 

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