Instead of attacking the Turks at their point of strength, Lawrence reasoned, he ought to attack them where they were weak—along the vast, largely unguarded length of railway line that was their connection to Damascus. Instead of focussing his attention on Medina, he should wage war over the broadest territory possible.
- Malcolm Gladwell, "How David Beats Goliath"
Iowa is in trouble. They are scheduled to face the Davidson Wildcats on Friday, an unranked, #10th-seeded team from the Atlantic 10, a team over whom they possess an enormous height advantage, but nevertheless they are in deep, deep trouble. The Wildcats don't start a center and their tallest starter, forward Peyton Aldridge, runs 6'7", 210 lb. In the A-10 Tournament final, Davidson started four guards; they have one real center, and he's 6'8". Davidson is tiny. And Iowa should be terrified of them.
Cast your mind back to December 12th, 2014, when Iowa State came to Iowa City. After a first half that concluded with Iowa up five, the Cyclones changed up their lineup. Their true center, Daniel Edozie, went to the bench, and 6'8" Georges Niang moved to center and brought 6'6" forward Abdel Nader off the bench. Iowa maintained their traditional lineup with Adam Woodbury at center, and for much of the second half, Woodbury found himself tasked with guarding Niang. Disaster followed. Niang, a vastly quicker player than Woodbury, forced the seven-footer to guard him in space on the perimeter, something Woodbury simply could not do. Woodbury was forced into a series of impossible choices: press Niang and get blown by for layups? Sag off Niang, and let him shoot open threes? Iowa State spread Iowa's size out to the breaking point, then broke it, blowing the Hawkeyes off the court with a series of wide open threes and layups.
Or recall January 20th of this year, when Iowa went to Madison to take on Wisconsin. The Badgers, of course, feature the ne plus ultra of positional mismatches at center, Frank Kaminsky. Kaminsky has NBA range and surprising quickness for a seven-footer. Once again, Woodbury was tasked with following a mobile, shooting center out to the three-point line, and once again, the result was utter destruction. Wisconsin scored 1.52 points per possession and won by 32. This was also the game where Woodbury gained infamy as an eye-poker, which is not a coincidence. When you are asked to do the impossible and guard players like Kaminsky and Nigel Hayes on the perimeter, you might be tempted to poke an eye or two as well.
What teams tend to give Iowa trouble? Think of Northern Iowa, who starts three guards and brings three more off the bench; think of Minnesota, who starts three guards and harassed Iowa constantly on the perimeter; think of Penn State, who likewise start three guards. True, Iowa did handle ultra-small Michigan, but they happened to catch the Wolverines without Derrick Walton. And true, Iowa solidly defeated a smallish Indiana team on the road, but they happened to catch the Hoosiers being coached by Tom Crean.*
*I've heard Davidson compared to Indiana, but I'm afraid this may give Iowa fans false comfort. Unlike Indiana, Davidson doesn't even make a pretense of starting a true post player. Plus everyone in Davidson's starting lineup can shoot, something that can't be said for Troy Williams or Hanner Mosquera-Perea.
Davidson plays smaller than perhaps any team Iowa has faced this year. They start two 5'11" guards and two 6'4" guards. And they shoot threes. A full 45.7% of their field goal attempts are threes, which ranks 9th in the country; 40.7% of their points come from threes, good for 4th in the country. Nearly everyone on the roster shoots threes, and shoots fairly well. Tyler Kalinoski, Jack Gibbs and Jordan Barnham all shoot above 43% (!) from deep, and even their token big Aldridge shoots 39.4% from three. The only "ignorable" shooters are forwards Nathan Ekwu and Andrew McAuliffe, and they average a combined 25 minutes a game. The Wildcats like to space teams out, and you will rarely see a player spend more than a second in post position. Kalinoski (or another guard) will bring the ball up, shooters will come off of screens to the elbow three area, and then Kalinoski will read and react. If the defense hedges too hard toward the three point line, screeners will dive to the rim for easy layups; If a three or an open shot isn't available right away, the whole whirligig keeps running at full speed until an open shot emerges. They play like the Phoenix Suns and shoot as soon as the smallest window opens up. This highlight clip of a Davidson blowout of St. Louis will give you a taste of the acres of space the Wildcat's all-shooter lineup generates:
This is a game where Iowa's greatest strength — its height — could be its greatest weakness. Davidson goes as small as it does for a reason. They know they can't match up with most team's traditional height, so they don't even try. Instead of attacking height where it is strongest, in the post, they force height to play where it is weakest, in space and on the perimeter. They are TE Lawrence in the desert, avoiding massed confrontations and picking the Ottomans apart along their supply lines.
What does this mean for Iowa? There's no beating around the bush: Adam Woodbury will struggle to cover Davidson. He lacks the foot-speed to follow any of Davidson's players on the perimeter and he lacks the leaping ability to recover and block shots when cutters dive to the rim. On offense, he would seem to have an insurmountable advantage in the post — and he might — but he is such a bad fit on defense that it's hard to see even the greatest Woodbury game on offense overwhelming the liability he would represent on defense (and Woodbury's offense – even of the uncovered-at-the-rim variety, has proven to be none too reliable this year).
So what can Iowa do? One option would be to simply sub out Woodbury in favor of the more mobile Gabe Olaseni. In fact, I would be very surprised if Olaseni didn't play more minutes than Woodbury on Friday. Olaseni has the speed to stay with guards on the perimeter, plus the length and jumping ability to block shots at the rim. But even Olaseni could struggle in the unfamiliar position of covering essentially a small forward in space.
The real problem with playing Olaseni, however, is what it means for the rest of Iowa's frontcourt. Assuming Olaseni guards Davidson's one true forward, Aaron White and Jarrod Uthoff would be matched up with 6'4" guards. White and Uthoff are both relatively mobile for their size, but they don't have the kind of lateral quickness needed to cover true shooting guards. As a result, both have a bad tendency to sag back on shooters in the hopes that their length will allow them to recover in time to contest the shot (or shoot the pass for a steal in White's case). Uthoff is so freakishly long that he actually succeeds quite a bit at this. But against Davidson, a team with zero conscience about taking (and making) even semi-contested threes, this kind of sagging could be dangerous.
To beat David, become David
Luckily, Iowa has kind of roster flexibility to beat Davidson at their own game. They have two players — White and Uthoff — who are ideally suited to play small-ball center, plus two reserve guards — Clemmons and Oglesby — who have the quickness and length, respectively, to harass perimeter shooters. Iowa could easily run out a lineup with White at the five, Uthoff at the four, and then some combination of Gesell, Jok, Clemmons and Oglesby at the three guard spots. For brief stretches a three years ago, Iowa used a lineup of White at the five and Zach McCabe at the four. It got destroyed defensively, but it also created a unique and difficult to guard pick and pop action between those two players. The same thing could work even better with White and Uthoff, and Davidson is not the kind of team that can punish either player in the post.
If a two-forward lineup struggles to contain Davidson's four-guard lineups, Iowa could even play all four of their guards along with White or Uthoff at the five, or swap Dom Uhl in for a guard or Olaseni as a center. This is a game where Uhl's combination of speed and length is ideally suited to chasing shooters and contesting three-pointers, so I wouldn't be surprised if he gets some extra run. Even "smaller" Iowa players like Oglseby and Clemmons would have size advantages when matched up with Davidson's 5'11" guards, and Iowa could run them out at "forward" positions and not lose much in the way of rebounding.
The real questions are whether Fran McCaffery will be willing to jumble his lineup in such significant ways and whether he will do it quickly enough. He mixes lineups fairly free once the game is started, but a good 10 minutes of game time (five minutes at the start of each half) is devoted to the usual starting lineup. Going traditionally big against Davidson for 25% of the game could result in Iowa digging itself a massive and avoidable hole to start the game.
The entire question of defense could be moot, of course, because Davidson's own defense is bad (180th in defensive efficiency). Hopefully Iowa will take advantage of Davidson's miniature size via a series of Aaron White dunks and uncontested Uthoff threes, and their own defense won't matter much. But if Iowa's offense struggles, they will need to rely on their defense, and defending Davidson requires making some hard, counterintuitive choices. It will mean voluntarily abandoning what seems like an overwhelming advantage — height — and playing a new kind of game, a perimeter game that rewards speed and intelligence over size and strength. If Iowa falls for the trap Davidson will lay for them, however, they could find themselves in the place of the Ottomans against Lawrence or the 2007 Dallas Mavericks against Don Nelson's small-ball Warriors : a lumbering giant brought down by virtue of their own size.