Iowa (7-2) vs. Iowa State (7-0)
Tonight the Hawkeyes take on their in-state rival, Iowa State, on the hardwood. The Hawkeyes have actually played a fairly tough schedule thus far to date, with games against Marquette, Dayton, Notre Dame, and Florida State. Iowa has come out 2-2 in those games, but has had chances to win in all 4 of them. I'm obviously leaving out Wichita State due to them not being at full strength, but the game against the Shockers highlights how good Iowa has been against inferior competition this season. Against the opponents that they have been expected to beat down, they have... well, beat them down by winning all of those games by no fewer than 17 points. That's what good teams do.
The Cyclones, on the other hand, have looked just as impressive in their 7 games. The one difference -- and this is not to take away from how good this team is -- is that Iowa State has only played two teams that are currently ranked inside the Kenpom top 100. Thus, some of their numbers are likely skewed in a more favorable direction than they would otherwise be. I'm not saying Iowa State isn't good (they are), but I'm saying Kenpom has their current strength of schedule ranked 231st in the nation, so that is something to keep in mind.
This game should be the biggest test either team has faced all season, and it comes with the added bonus of being a bitter in-state rivalry. Iowa wants payback for the loss in Iowa City last season, while Iowa State wants to be known as the best team in the state.
This should be a fun one.
When Iowa has the Ball
Note: All numbers in this piece come from Kenpom or Sports Reference. Additionally, ratings in the four factors chart are scaled so that 100 = average. Thus, above 100 is above average, while below 100 is below average. For example, Iowa's 111 shooting rating means that their eFG% has been 11% better than the national average this year, while Iowa State's 111 means they have been 11% better at contesting opponent shots this season.
Iowa's strengths on offense have been clear this year: shooting and a lack of turnovers. That leaves the other two areas as potential sources of weakness or something more on the fence. Free throw rate is the one that we are pretty sure is a weakness for Iowa this season, as they adjust from being a team dominated by play on the inside and move toward a more perimeter-oriented style of play. Of course, free throw rate matters less if you can shoot the ball as well as Iowa has this season, so as long as Iowa continues to shoot well from the field and make their threes, they are golden.
Of course, on those night when the shots aren't falling (i.e. Notre Dame) the Hawkeyes need to rely more on free throws and offensive rebounds, the latter of which Iowa has been inconsistent at this season. In the four games against actual competition this year, Iowa has been above the 30.4% national average in offensive rebounding rate just once, and that was in the loss to Notre Dame. My main point being that I think Iowa's offensive rebounding rate has the potential to be a negative as the season goes on. It could continue to hover around the median, though, so it's something to keep an eye on. But for this game, Iowa State's defensive rebounding skills worry me.
From an advantage-perspective, the only clear one Iowa looks to have on offense is the fact that they don't turn the ball over and Iowa State isn't a huge turnover-forcing team. The Cyclones do just about everything else well on defense. Their opponents don't shoot particularly well against them, they crash the defensive glass, and they rarely ever foul.
One thing to keep in mind about these numbers, however, is that it is still early in the season and we are still working with a small sample size that has some bad competition mixed in. I've already mentioned Iowa State's schedule to date, and because of that, I do think Iowa may shoot the ball better than previous teams have against the Cyclones this season. Even with this game being on the road, I think Iowa potentially has the shooting and turnover advantages on this end of the court, while Iowa State pretty clearly has the advantage in rebounding and free throw rate.
When Iowa State has the Ball
When we get to the other side of the ball, we start to see that this year's version of Iowa seems to be built a bit like Iowa State. The Cyclones also rely heavily on shooting and not turning the ball over. For whatever reason, their defensive rebounding abilities don't seem to carry over to the offensive glass. I'm not sure if that's on purpose because they put an emphasis on getting back on defense or if Jameel McKay really is the only guy worth a damn at creating second chances. Whatever it is, Iowa should be able to win the defensive rebounding struggle. Additionally, Iowa should also have no issues keeping Iowa State off the free throw line.
Thus, this side of the ball is similar to the other. The defense will have the toughest time trying to contest and limit open shots and trying to create turnovers. If the Hawkeye defense can keep Iowa State's shooting reasonably in check, they have a good shot at winning this side of the ball. Of course, that is a huge task that many teams cannot manage.
Style of Play
Both teams play an up-tempo type of game. Iowa State is faster when you look at possessions (75 adjusted possessions per game compared to Iowa's 71), but Iowa is closer to them when you take into account length of possession. The Hawkeyes tend to have the ball an average of 15.8 seconds per offensive possession (55th in the nation), while Iowa State is at 14.6 (12th in nation). That accounts for part of why Iowa's possessions number is smaller, but the other part is because Iowa's opponents have held the ball longer on offense. Whether that is due to Iowa playing better defense or playing slower tempo teams, though, is unknown.
Additionally, both teams really like the long ball. This is a new thing for Iowa this season, but this is old hat for Iowa State.
Both teams are shooting the ball really well from just about everywhere, though. And that includes from behind the arc.
Even on defense, both squads are holding opponents to below the national average. One thing to keep in mind, of course, is that Kenpom has some literature on three-point attempts being a better explainer of three-point defense, as opposed to three-point field goal percentage. And both of these teams are in the bottom half of the country when it comes to the percentage of field goal attempts that opponents are taking from deep.
From a scoring perspective, both teams struggle to get to the free throw line which means they are both getting a below average percentage of their points from there. Meanwhile, Iowa State has shot better from inside the arc, which is why they have earned more of their points on the inside and vice versa for the Hawkeyes.
Per usual, Iowa State has a really tight rotation of guys who see the court. Four of their five starters play 30 minutes or more per game, while all five play at least 27 minutes per game. Because of the amount of time they spend on the floor (and also because they are talented), every starter is scoring at least 12.9 points per game.
Let's start with Georges Niang. Most of you should be familiar with his game, but he's a power forward who also has the ability to step out behind the arc and drain the three. He does attempt most of his shots from closer to the rim, however. Niang is leading the team with 18.6 points per game, and is doing so on an extremely efficient 60% eFG%. Outside of his scoring, Niang is a very good defensive rebounder. That being said, his one area of weakness is that he has never been much of an offensive rebounder. Again, whether that is strategy or actual talent level, I'm not sure. But Niang killed Iowa on the pick and roll last season, so let's hope Jarrod Uthoff and Dom Uhl are ready to defend that tonight.
After Niang, Monte Morris is the guy who makes the offense run and who also plays the most. Morris is Iowa State's talented point guard (also Niang's pick and roll partner last year), and he is playing 34 minutes per game at that spot. He has about a 7/1 assist/turnover ratio this season, while being 101st in the nation in assist rate and 236th in the nation in turnover rate. Morris can also score the ball, too -- he's putting up about 15 points per game on the season. He has the ability to knock down the occasional three-pointer, but his offensive game is more about attacking off the dribble and penetrating the defense.
Jameel McKay is a guy who Iowa missed out on playing last year (similar to Deonte Burton this year) due to not being eligible until later in the season. But he's Iowa State's energy guy down low. He's not going to stretch the defense and he lacks touch on his shot at times, but McKay is a monster when it comes to crashing the boards and he's always a threat to throw it down. McKay is 51st in the country in offensive rebounding rate and 104th in its defensive counterpart. With Iowa's rebounding issues this season, McKay's abilities are worrisome. However, if they can limit his offensive opportunities to one-on-one, backdown types of touches near the basket (as opposed to pick and roll or cutting to the basket), he may not hurt Iowa too bad in the scoring department.
Abdel Nader is another guy Iowa fans should remember pretty well. After being an extremely high-volume, extremely low-efficiency shooter for two years at Northern Illinois, he has turned his offensive game completely around at Iowa State. We saw the beginning of his newer, more-efficient ways last season when he scored 19 points in Iowa City on 6-10 shooting (4-6 from three-point range), and he's doing it again this season. So far in 2015 he is giving the Cyclones 14.6 points per game on a 59.5% eFG%. More importantly, he's doing all of this while using the most possessions out of any Iowa State player when he's on the court. So he still hasn't met a shot he doesn't like, but he's making them at such a nice clip that it doesn't matter. His one issue on offense, however, is his turnover problem. At 20.5%, his turnover rate is the highest on the team and is the reason his offensive rating is at 107 and not somewhere closer to 120. Anyway, he's still an offensive threat and he's a got a knack for grabbing defensive rebounds, too.
The final starter for Iowa State -- and not one to take lightly because he's being mentioned last -- is the artist formerly known as "Naz Long." This year he is going by "Naz Mitrou-Long" but his game is still the same as it ever was. Mitrou-Long's biggest asset on offense is his ability to stroke it from outside. He's only hitting on 33% of his three-pointers so far this season, but it's early and he was a 39-40% career shooter from out there before this season. He should still be considered as dangerous as ever from long range, and more than 3 out of every 5 field goals he attempts are from deep, so Iowa can't afford to lose him on defense. Outside of his shooting, though, Mitrou-Long doesn't provide a whole lot else. He's not egregiously bad in any other area, but his main value added to the team is his three-point shooting.
Finally, Matt Thomas and Hallice Cook are Iowa State's bench. Once Deonte Burton is eligible to play, he will also help Iowa State's depth. However, he's not a guy Iowa has to worry about, so we won't talk about him. Thomas can spell Mitrou-Long at the two and Nader at the three throughout the game. In his 24 minutes per game, Thomas' main strengths are three-point shooting (34% on the year) and defensive rebounding (second-best on the team). Cook, meanwhile, plays about 14 minutes per game and does the whole Anthony Clemmons thing of playing the one and the two positions. In a small sample size, he's shown to be more of a three-point shooter (44% on 18 attempts), but his shot selection at Oregon State last year was more balanced. Either way, he's a career 45% three-point shooter, so Iowa cannot afford to leave him open when he is in the game.
What Kenpom Thinks
Kenpom Rankings: Iowa #18, Iowa State #12
Projected Outcome: Iowa 76 (31%), Iowa State 81 (69%)
Projected Points Per Possession: Iowa 1.01, Iowa State 1.08
Projected Possessions: 75
On paper, both of these teams are closely-rated. Iowa's offense is actually ranked slightly higher than Iowa State's so far this season, while Iowa State has the close defensive edge. That being said, it is still early and those rankings will change as the season goes on. I think Iowa's rankings are a bit closer to their true talent level due to the competition they have played thus far, while Iowa State has yet to play anyone worth much of damn (plus, things could change when Burton is eligible to play). We all know Iowa State's offense is really good and their offensive numbers thus far are probably real or close to real, anyway. Instead, it's their defensive numbers that we should keep an eye on. Over the last few years, they have been fine on defense, but not outstanding. Steve Prohm has been labeled a "defensive-minded coach" and he could be a reason Iowa State is improved in this area. That being said, it will be worth watching tonight to see if their defense really is as good as the numbers say it is this year, or if it has been inflated by the level of competition.
Either way, we know the Cyclones are a very good team who have the ability to light up the scoreboard. And with this game being played at Hilton, it shouldn't be a surprise to anybody that Iowa is the underdog. The Hawkeyes will need big nights from the upperclassmen, and cannot afford to fall into a huge scoring drought the way they did against Dayton and Notre Dame. Jarrod Uthoff has been great this year, but Iowa will need a consistent game all the way through and not one where he falls off the map for long periods of time. Peter Jok will need to contribute, but needs to limit bad shots and turnovers, while not being a liability on defense. Mike Gesell will need to frequently penetrate the Iowa State defense (Iowa's offense tends to go in a funk when they just toss the ball around the perimeter), and find the open man. Anthony Clemmons will need play lockdown defense on the perimeter, while also contributing a few points and assists on the offensive end. Adam Woodbury will need to clog up the middle for any slashing Cyclones looking for points near the rim, while staying out of foul trouble. Iowa will also need his rebounding and for him to hopefully contribute some points in the paint. And, finally, the bench players will need to fulfill their roles, too. That means Iowa will need rebounding and defense from Dom Uhl and some three-point shooting from Brady Ellingson.
It is highly unlikely, of course, that all of those things will go right for Iowa. Every game is made up of a combination of those scenarios and their opposites. The same holds true for Iowa State. But with all of the possible scenarios available, it's clear that we could envision either team winning this game. I think most of us lean toward Iowa State due to the last few years and the game being played at Hilton, and that's understandable. But the numbers show that if Iowa plays the way they are capable of, they have a real shot at winning this game.