1. Who Dictates the Game’s Pace?
Consider Iowa State’s matchup with the slow-paced, methodical Little Rock in the NCAA tournament’s second round something of a warm-up act. The Trojans may have been one of the slowest teams Iowa State has faced this season, but it’ll get no slower than Virginia come Friday night at the United Center.
The No. 1-seeded Cavaliers come in dead last at No. 351 in adjusted tempo according to KenPom, averaging 61.3 possessions per 40 minutes. For some perspective, Little Rock sits at No. 344, averaging 64 possessions per game.
“They’re a really solid team and I think the best way to describe them is they just grind people out,” senior Georges Niang said of Virginia. “They just grind you out until you’re tired and try to take over the game.”
Iowa State, which is ranked No. 57 in adjusted tempo (71.7 possessions per 40), played at a much slower pace in the second round Saturday. The Cyclones, though, scored 78 points on only 63 possessions with efficient offense (55 percent from the field).
While the goal Saturday to get Little Rock moving quicker was to get out in transition and run, Virginia will present other challenges. The Cavaliers are ranked fourth in adjusted defense by KenPom, clashing with Iowa State’s third-ranked adjusted offense.
“We’ve got to space the floor, we’ve got to get ball reversal, we can’t take quick shots, we can’t give them turnovers leading to easy baskets,” said coach Steve Prohm, listing key factors. “You can’t play hurried. We have to have good ball reversal, good spacing. What they want you to do is get frustrated, one quick shot, now you’re back guarding 25 seconds of action, which they’re very, very good at.”
Iowa State has proven it can play slow-paced, half court basketball, but it’ll face its biggest test Friday night as it attempts to advance to the second Elite Eight in school history. The key to advancing: It starts with dictating the style of play.
“We’ve just got to come in and try not to fall into that trap,” point guard Monte Morris said. “We put up some good points on Little Rock because we got a few stops and were able to run in transition. We’ve got to do the same thing Friday night.”
2. Limiting Virginia’s Malcolm Brogdon
Abdel Nader welcomes the challenge, and it will be no small task. But guarding Virginia’s Malcolm Brogdon could very well be the X-factor in Friday’s matchup.
The big, 6-foot-5 guard is averaging 18.6 points, four rebounds and nearly three assists per game this season as one of the top players in the nation. Virginia utilizes his size and ability in multiple ways, putting him in isolation and letting him drive while also allowing him to use his size to pin down defenders.
Slowing Brogdon down will certainly take a collective effort, but that effort will likely be mostly focused on the 6-foot-6 forward Nader.
“He’s big, physical, skilled and can shoot it,” Nader said. “He can actually give you a couple different things. He creates for his teammates and for himself.”
“He has a unique game,” added Niang, who played with Brogdon this past summer. “He does a really good job of making tough shots and getting into the lane and really using his strong frame to score over guys.”
Plus, he can shoot it.
Brogdon has emerged as a deep threat in 2015-16, hitting 74 3s while shooting 40 percent from beyond the arc. If Nader can help limit the talented guard Friday night, it could put Iowa State in good position to advance.
3. Can Georges Niang Get Going?
Much like Iowa State must find a way to slow Brogdon, Virginia must find a way to slow the Cyclones’ All-American, Georges Niang.
Niang, who is now second all-time in Iowa State history in scoring, has scored 28 points in each of Iowa State’s first two NCAA tournament games, taking 23 and 18 shots, respectively, to reach the mark. Virginia could attack Niang in multiple ways, but it remains to be seen which way it’ll choose to do so.
“It’s all going to be about matchups from that standpoint,” Prohm said. “Are they going to play big or are they going to play small? Then I think you go from there. If they go small it’ll be one way, if they go big it’ll be another way. It’s really going to depend how they play. [Last game against] Butler they played big one half and small one half. So I think it’s really going to matter who they play.”
Virginia, in addition to ranking fourth in adjusted defense, ranks second in opponent’s points per game at 59.5. The Cavaliers’ grind-you-out defense has caused trouble for many this season, but the Cyclones will present unique challenges with their pace, efficiency and numerous scoring threats.
If the last two games prove to be an indicator, Virginia may ultimately need to decide between focusing on Niang or the Cyclones’ outside threats.
“With me and Abdel hitting shots it just makes us that more challenging to guard because it makes defenses pick between: Do you want to try and get in the gap and stop Georges from getting to the basket or stop Monte from facilitating or do you want to give me or Abdel shots?” Matt Thomas said. “It just makes us that much more dangerous on offense.”
Friday night, something will have to give in this battle of opposites.