DENVER — Something will have to give at the Pepsi Center on Saturday when two of college basketball’s polar opposites meet for admittance into the Sweet 16.
Iowa State reached the NCAA tournament’s second round here by out-gunning similarly-styled run-and-gun Iona in the opener, but its upcoming test will involve speeding up slow-moving Cinderella, Arkansas-Little Rock.
The 12th-seeded Trojans, meanwhile, will attempt to counter.
“With a team like that, they try to get up and down. We can't be one of those teams that try to play like them,” Little Rock guard Josh Hagins said. “We have to be ourselves. If you ask us what our style of play is, it's just to win.
“If we let them get up and down… We don't have a chance. That's not our game.”
Just how opposite are these two teams? Iowa State is ranked No. 51 by KenPom in adjusted offensive tempo, averaging 72 possessions per 40 minutes; Little Rock ranks No. 344, averaging 64.3 possessions per 40 minutes.
So how do you speed up one of the nation’s slowest teams?
“Just run,” Monte Morris said. “Try to get the ball, push, throw it ahead of couple times. Just get our pace of basketball going, don’t hold it, don’t stick it.”
“We know we can’t really force them to take fast shots, but once we get stops we know we can push the ball and that’s key for us,” Jameel McKay added. “As long as we get stops we’re going to control the tempo. Out of the rebound we can push it. Nobody can stop us from pushing it as long as we get stops. That’s the biggest thing for us is getting rebounds. We just have to rebound and control the tempo.”
Little Rock is well aware.
When scouting future opponents, Little Rock coach Chris Beard and his staff typically cut up clips of anywhere from eight to 14 fastbreaks and transitions from their opponent. Following his team’s upset of fifth-seeded Purdue on Thursday, Beard quickly learned what his team would be up against in the second round.
“In [Thursday's] game they had 30-something breaks,” Beard said of Iowa State's first-round game. “It's pretty obvious what they're trying to do: push the ball up the floor. That's going to be our first objective. We have a lot of challenges. On the offensive end we're going to have to find a way to score against them as well.”
Yet Iowa State faces challenges of its own.
That starts with Hagins, who scored 29 of his 31 points Thursday in the game’s second half and two overtimes. The Cyclones have faced their share of slow-paced teams this season in UNI (346) and Oklahoma State (337) and endured mixed results. Little Rock was compared Friday to Big 12 foe Texas Tech (288).
“We’re obviously going to try to dictate tempo. We’re going to try to play the way we try to play and if they want to slow it down we’ll just do what we can defensively to stop them and hopefully get a lead early to make them have to play faster than they’re used to,” Matt Thomas said. “Getting a lead early will be big in deciding tempo because if we get an 8-10 point lead early they’re going to feel like they have to get themselves back into the game and that’ll make them play faster than they're used to.”
So Iowa State’s quest to reach its fifth Sweet 16 in program history — and its second in the last three seasons — will begin on the defensive end. The Cyclones have held the motto ‘Three More Stops’ through the duration of this season, and that will prove critical when it matches up against another Cinderella hopeful.
“We’ve got to be locked in. These guys know it,” Prohm said. “They know how they play. They’re not a team that’s just going to run it down your back. When it’s just half court we are going to have to guard, we’re going to have to be in gaps.”
And Saturday, when push comes to shove, something has got to give.
“They’re going to slow the game down as much as possible,” Morris said. “We’ve got a game plan for it and [will] try to run. We can’t let them dictate [tempo].”