It's finally here. Tonight's game against Iowa State marks the end of the road, as far as cupcakes are concerned. Sure, North Florida, Northwestern, and Rutgers are still yet to come on Iowa's schedule, but the worst of that lot (Rutgers, because of course they are) is currently ranked #172 by Kenpom. Hell, North Florida has already beaten Purdue, which just emphasizes the fact that the Longwoods, UMBCs, and the Alcorn State's of the world are now in the rear view.
The Cyclones have to travel to Carver-Hawkeye Arena for this game, which is good news, considering that the home team has won the last 3 games and 10 out of the last 11. Since 1980, these two teams have played 35 games against each other; Iowa has won 18 and Iowa State has won 17. That's not the only thing that's close, either. The average score over that time span? Iowa 73, Iowa State 70. Needless to say, these two teams have played each other close throughout the years, and this season's match up looks to be no different; even with Bryce Dejean-Jones out due to suspension.
The Hawkeyes come into this game unranked by traditional means, but find themselves #18 in the Kenpom ratings. Iowa State, on the other hand, enters tonight #14 in the AP Poll, #13 in the coaches poll, and #20 according to Kenpom. The Hawkeyes rely on lockdown defense to help make up for a merely okay offense, while the Cyclones rely on an explosive offense to make up for a merely okay defense. In other words, we have two teams who get to battle strength vs. strength and mediocrity vs. mediocrity tonight. And with the way this series has been, I don't think we would have it any other way.
When Iowa Has the Ball
Note: All Kenpom rankings are from Thursday (when I was writing this), so if they are slightly different at the time you are reading this, that is why. Also, a reminder on how to read this chart: 100 = Division 1 average. Anything above 100 is above average, while anything below 100 is below average. The bigger the number, the better.
Like I said above, this side of the ball will be a battle of both teams' kryptonite. Iowa's offense has been downright stagnant at times this year. Long shooting droughts have led to some really worrisome offensive lulls in the middle of games. And, outside of Aaron White, this team isn't making up for mediocre-to-poor shooting this season by drawing fouls and getting to the free throw line. Instead, the main saving grace for this offense has been second chance opportunities via offensive rebounds, thanks to Gabe Olaseni, Adam Woodbury, and Aaron White. Iowa's strength lies in those three down low, but the offense doesn't always seem to try to work the ball near the basket. Rather, the Hawkeyes have been happy to settle for more jump shots than we are accustomed to, and they are currently not shooting them very well. As I've previously mentioned, three point shooting has a lot of variance, and right now Iowa is very unlucky. However, with them taking fewer shots near the rim (especially when their strength is at the rim), it should not be all that surprising that they aren't shooting particularly great. Essentially, Iowa's shot distribution has reverted back to where it was two years ago, and so has their eFG%, as a result.
If there's any reason why Iowa's offensive performance may not be a death knell in this game, it would be because of Iowa State's defense. Their defensive four factors actually line up pretty well with Iowa's offensive four factors, except for the fact that the Cyclones are the best team in the nation at keeping opponents off the line and Iowa is just average at getting there this year. In addition to not fouling, Iowa State has been able to keep their opponents from getting too many second chances when they miss shots and have also been good at forcing turnovers (something important for teams who love transition, like the Cyclones do). Their main issue this year, however, is that opponents aren't missing as much as they would like. They are letting opposing teams shoot threes at a high rate, and if you think that is all bad luck (it could be), opposing teams are also hitting their twos at a decent clip.
If there is one area in which Iowa has the advantage on offense, it would be height. Iowa State is not very deep in the post. Georges Niang and Daniel Edozie are both 6'8", but Dustin Hogue is just 6'6". The 6'8" Jameel McKay will soon be a welcome addition to this Iowa State front line, but he's not eligible to play for another week. Until then, this team is largely perimeter-heavy, and Iowa should try to take advantage of that. Especially now that Dejean-Jones is out for this game. The Cyclones will be missing a key long defender, who is one of the best on the team at forcing steals and grabbing defensive rebounds.
All that being said, though, I can't give Iowa the advantage here because they have yet to really make a consistent effort to work the ball down low this season.
When Iowa State Has the Ball
And here is both teams' bread and butter. Iowa State, yet again, offers an explosive offense that can put up points with the best of them. Fred Hoiberg has adopted the stathead philosophy of having his team put an emphasis on shooting near the basket and from beyond the three point arc, while largely ignoring inefficient long twos. It has paid off (yet again), as his team currently has the 18th best eFG% in the nation, according to Kenpom. They don't rebound their misses well and they are only average when it comes to getting to the foul line, but they don't turn the ball over. Like at all. And when you don't waste possessions by giving the ball up, and you are one of the best shooting teams in the nation, that is still a nice formula for a great offense.
Meanwhile, for as good as Iowa State's offense has been this season, Iowa's defense has been just as good. Outside of the second half of the Texas game, this defense has not allowed any team to average more than 1 point per possession in any other half this year. The one chink in the armor (defensive rebounding) just so happens to also be Iowa State's offensive weakness (offensive rebounding). Otherwise, this Iowa team looks to continue forcing missed shots and turnovers, and abstaining from fouling against this Cyclone offense.
For Iowa State, the height mismatch could also play a big part on this side of the ball. Georges Niang is very good and he will most likely get his points, but Iowa's height should make it hard for Iowa State to get points down low. Instead, this match up could likely hinge on whether or not Iowa State is connecting on their threes or not. If Iowa can keep them in check from long distance, they should be fine. If the Cyclones explode from deep, then the Hawkeyes could struggle to keep up with the way their offense has looked against better competition this season.
Team Shooting Tendencies
Like I said earlier, Iowa State tends to shoot either from long range or near the rim. It's impossible to cut out mid-range jumpers totally, of course, but you can see they shoot them far less often than Iowa does.
Unsurprisingly, when we break down their shooting from the floor and the free throw line, Iowa State is the better offensive team. Of course, I would be remiss if I didn't remind you that Iowa is the better defensive team.
Looking at their shooting tendencies, we can see that the Hawkeyes are attempting a lot more threes than we are used to under Fran McCaffery, but Fred Hoiberg's crew still blows them out of the water. For every 5 Iowa State field goal attempts, about 2 of them are from long range.
And despite having a league-average shot distribution, Iowa is still getting 3% fewer of their total points from downtown due to their poor shooting from out there. Additionally, thanks to their great free throw shooting, they are getting 1.5% more of their points from the free throw line even though they possess only a mediocre free throw rate.
As for Iowa State, they actually have a fairly average scoring distribution, outside of scoring 2% more of their points from behind the three point line. That's probably less than expected due to only being 113th in the nation in three point field goal percentage, while also being 6th in two point field goal percentage.
Opposing Players to Know
Unlike McCaffery, Hoiberg uses a short bench. All five of his usual starters average at least 27 minutes per game, and three of them (Georges Niang, Bryce Dejean-Jones, and Monte Morris) average over 30. Just for comparison, no one on Iowa currently averages 30 minutes per game. Aaron White is the leader at almost 27 followed by Jarrod Uthoff at almost 26. After that, you see a lot of 20-22 minutes per game on Iowa's roster. That means Hoiberg relies heavily on his starters in an attempt to get the most he can out of them every game.
The two players that stir the Cyclone drink are Georges Niang and Bryce Dejean-Jones. Unfortunately for Iowa State, Bryce Dejean-Jones is suspended for this game, and that's a pretty huge blow. Meanwhile, Niang was a big power forward who thinned down over the offseason and is playing some of the best basketball of his career.
He has always had a nice inside/outside game, and this season is no different. He seems to be having a little trouble finishing at the rim early in the year, but he's still putting up the best eFG% of his career by making two point jumpers a little further away from the rim and by hitting about 38% of his threes. Niang is a very versatile player (McCaffery recruited the hell out of him), and he's not afraid to put the ball on the floor and attack the rim. Again, he's not shooting real well from up close this season, but he's helped offset that by being fairly good at drawing fouls and shooting 92% from the charity stripe. He can be a point-forward when he wants to be, as he is the second best assist man on the team and he doesn't have an astronomical turnover rate. And last but not least, since he is a big man, I should also mention he's the best defensive rebounder on the team. In other words, he is good.
With Dejean-Jones suspended, the play of Naz Long and Monte Morris will become even more important for this Cyclone team. While basically the entire roster is unafraid to shoot from distance, Long is the primary three point shooter for the Hawkeyes to mark.
He's attempted 81% of his field goals from beyond the arc this season, and he's connecting on about 38% of them. He seems to have an affinity for the corner three this season, although the right corner has been more friendly to him than the left thus far.
Monte Morris is the starting point guard and currently averages the most minutes on the team. He's a more than capable scorer, but he's also very good at dishing the ball out without turning it over. I mean, an almost 7 to 1 assist to turnover ratio? Who wouldn't take that from their starting point guard? But Morris isn't just an offensive threat, he is also a good defender who possesses another nice combo of having the highest steal rate on the team, while at the same time being whistled for the fewest fouls.
Dustin Hogue is the final regular starter for the Cyclones. He is an undersized post player, who can shoot the three a bit, but has been a very efficient scorer at the rim this season. He was an extremely good defensive rebounder last year, but it seems like Dejean-Jones has stolen his share of the defensive rebounds through 7 games this season. I guess what I'm saying is, don't be surprised if he grabs his fair share of defensive boards in this one.
Finally, with Dejean-Jones sitting this game out, that leaves either Matt Thomas or Abdel Nader as likely candidates to replace him in the starting lineup. Thomas is a talented sophomore guard who loves to shoot the three ball and is very good at doing so. He would likely be the better offensive choice in this game, but he may be a liability on defense due to Iowa's height advantage.
As for Nader, he's not totally new to the Iowa seniors, seeing as they went up against him when he played for Northern Illinois two years ago. Nader put up 18 points in that game, but took 19 field goal attempts to do so. And, well, that's kind of his MO: he's a high-volume, low-efficiency player on offense. Part of the inefficiency is poor shooting, but he also tosses in some turnovers to balance it all out. Poor efficiency aside, he is a damn fine defensive rebounder and a decent shot-blocker. His bigger frame probably matches up with Iowa better on the defensive side of the ball than Thomas does. It will be interesting to see who Hoiberg decides to start.
What Kenpom Thinks
Projected Score: Iowa 73, Iowa State 69
Projected Odds of an Iowa Win: 67%
Projected Possessions: 71
Projected Points Per Possession: Iowa 1.03, Iowa State 0.97
Kenpom thinks Iowa will win this game, largely because of home court advantage. If this game was in Hilton, the odds would likely swing the opposite way, considering how closely both teams are in his ratings. Of course, this projection doesn't take into account the fact that one of the Cyclones' best players is suspended for this game, so if you really trust Kenpom and his numbers, you could probably up that percentage.
Nonetheless, I'm not willing to just hand this game to the Hawkeyes. Even without Dejean-Jones, the Cyclones still have Georges Niang and a host of other players that can go off on any given night. My main worry this game is if Iowa State shoots lights out from long range, can Iowa's offense consistently produce without going into a back-breakingly long shooting lull? One way they could help avoid that fate is by pushing the transition game. However, this season's Hawkeye team has yet to run at quite the breakneck speed of last year's team, and Iowa State would love to get into a fastbreak game where they can avoid Iowa's bigs from blocking their path to the rim by running up and down the court getting easy layups and transition threes (that means avoiding turnovers will be very important for the Hawkeyes tonight). Another way to be more efficient on offense, though, would be to feed the post early and often. Iowa has the height advantage, and they should make sure to try to exploit it. White and Uthoff should have their usual good games, but Woodbury and Olaseni should play big parts in the game plan, as well. The absence of Dejean-Jones will not only be missed on offense for Iowa State, but it will be felt on defense, too.
Personally, I do like Iowa in this one (even if Dejean-Jones was playing) mainly because this game is being played in Carver. If it was in Hilton, I would be tempted to lean toward the Cyclones. Either way, no matter the outcome, I am still expecting a close, hard-fought basketball game.