Positives, Question Marks of 4-0 Start

Before I dive into my review of the ISU basketball team's 4-0 start, I have a quick comment to make: Wasn't it nice to see Michigan State suffer a tough call or two in the final seconds of a game at Auburn Hills? I felt soooooo bad for the Spahhh-ins on Saturday, didn't you?

OK, I got that out of my system.

After the Cyclones defeated Idaho State, 73-47, to win the Cyclone Challenge on Saturday night, one thing is certain: Coach Wayne Morgan has to be very pleased with ISU's start to the 2003-04 season.

However, beyond the 4-0 mark, there are many other areas to review. Looking at the numbers, there are several positives for Iowa State in the early going…and there are also a few questions that remain unanswered.

First, let's take a look at some of the positives…

Iowa State's shot selection has been very good. This was definitely a concern coming into the season, considering the fact that two starters are freshmen, including the point guard. But, the Cyclones have done a nice job offensively so far, shooting 51% from the floor. The two rookie starters—Curtis Stinson and Will Blalock—are a combined 29 for 60 (48%) from the field, which is very good at this point.

The Cyclones are getting good balance offensively. Four players are averaging in double figures: Jackson Vroman (17.7), Jake Sullivan (13.3), Jared Homan (12.5) and Stinson (12.3). In addition, Marcus Jefferson (9.8) and Blalock (7.0) have been solid contributors to the ISU offense. This may not seem like a big deal, but it makes the Cyclones much more difficult to defend. You can't just focus on Sullivan to stop Iowa State's halfcourt offense.

Iowa State's team defense has been pretty good. Through four games, the Cyclones have allowed an average of only 59.5 points per game to their opponents. I don't expect ISU to keep that number below 60 for a whole lot longer, but if the Cyclones can keep that number around 65, they should be in for a pretty good season.

The Cyclones rebounded the ball much better this weekend. Coming into the Cyclone Challenge, ISU was not getting the job done on the glass. This was something Cyclones fans were definitely NOT used to seeing. But, in the two games this weekend, Iowa State out-rebounded its opponents 95 to 72. For the season, the Cyclones hold a 155 to 153 advantage on the boards. That +0.5 rebounds per game will need to rise up to the +5.0 to +8.0 range for Coach Morgan to be pleased, however.

The freshmen are handling the ball very well. Through four games, Blalock and Stinson have a total of 37 assists and only 14 turnovers. That's a 2.6 to 1 assist to turnover ratio, which is outstanding for a pair of freshmen. Blalock has handled most of the duties at the point this season and he has a 3 to 1 ratio (18 assists to six turnovers). I don't know how long these guys can continue this trend, but they are getting more and more comfortable with each game.

The frontcourt players are putting the ball in the hole. Iowa State is going to rely on its interior game more this season than it has since Marcus Fizer was playing in Ames and so far, the results are very good. Homan, Vroman, Damion Staple and Reggie George will need to continue their solid play for the Cyclones to make a run at the Big Dance. As a group, these guys are shooting 59% (57 of 97) from the field. It doesn't get much more efficient than that, my friends.

The perimeter players are shooting the ball well from long distance. Right now, it looks like Iowa State has four guys in its nine-man rotation who are legitimate threats from three-point land: Sullivan, Blalock, Stinson and John Neal. (Neal has played 40 minutes in three games.) As a group, these guys are shooting 43% (21 of 49) from downtown, which is very good. And remember, Tim Barnes may be returning to the team soon and he made 57 bombs last season at a 38% clip. If the post players can continue to score and guys like Blalock and Stinson can continue to penetrate well, the Cyclones will get more open looks from long-distance.

The main ballhandlers are knocking down their free throws. This bodes well for Iowa State down the stretch of close games, of course. You want your best ballhandlers to be "money" at the line and right now, Blalock, Sullivan and Stinson are shooting a combined 91% (21 of 23) from the foul line. Another excellent trend.

Vroman is off to a terrific start. We can argue all day long—or at least for a few minutes—about whether or not the senior should have served a longer suspension (he should have). But, the fact is that he's eligible and playing for the Cyclones…and doing a tremendous job on the court. We can only hope that he's getting his life together off the court, as well. After sitting out ISU's opener against Mercer (a 23-point rout), Vroman has averaged 17.7 points, 9.3 rebounds, 2.0 steals and 1.7 blocks, while shooting 72% from the field and having an 11 to 3 assist to turnover ratio. He's also only been whistled for six fouls in three games, which would be a GREAT trend for Vroman to continue. With his energy and production, Vroman has been Iowa State's best player in the early going.

Here are a few questions I still have about this team…

Will rebounding become a strength for Iowa State? Will the REAL Cyclone team please stand up? In the first two games of the season, ISU was out-rebounded by 21. In the next two games, the Cyclones owned a 23-rebound advantage. For this team to be successful, we're going to need to see many more strong rebounding performances. Iowa State doesn't have to DOMINATE on the glass, but it certainly can't afford to lose the rebounding battle by 8 to 10 in any Big 12 games. Coach Morgan is undoubtedly focusing on this area, which was a tremendous strength for ISU during its back-to-back Big 12 title seasons.

How will transition defense help or hurt the Cyclones? Knowing the full-court abilities of teams like Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas, Iowa State is NOT going to be able to match these teams in an up-and-down track meet. The two best ways to control the pace of a game are to A) rebound well and B) beat your opponent down the floor defensively. The last several years—under Floyd and Eustachy—the Cyclones regularly sent both guards back to the defensive end of the floor when ISU took a shot. This enabled Iowa State to defend against transition baskets and the secondary breaks of teams like Kansas.

Will Staple or George provide the necessary frontcourt depth? One of my big concerns about this team is… What happens when Homan and Vroman are both in foul trouble? Who will play effectively in the post? Will Staple or George—or both—develop into a steady, solid inside presence at both ends of the court? Or will there be a significant drop-off in post play when Homan and Vroman aren't on the court? Staple, a junior, is averaging 15 minutes of playing time…5.0 points and 3.8 rebounds. George, a freshman, is averaging 12.5 minutes…2.8 points and 1.8 rebounds.

Will the free-throw shooting of the frontcourt become a huge weakness? A red flag for this team right now is that the three guys who have been to the free-throw line the most (Jefferson, Homan and Vroman) are shooting a combined 58% (28 of 48). That's not very good. Then, consider that the four main frontcourt players (Homan, Vroman, Staple and George) are shooting a combined 50% (20 of 40), which is just awful. Vroman is the biggest concern right now at 47% (7 of 15). Each of these guys ought to be able to knock down 65% to 70% at the free-throw line. Another thing that makes me cringe is that these guys are shooting this poorly in games that are at HOME and usually with big leads. What happens when it's a close game on the road? Yikes.

How will Iowa State fare against better competition…or on the road? It's always hard to evaluate what you REALLY have or how well the team is REALLY playing until it comes up against a team with a similar—or greater—talent level. Or plays a few games on the road. Neither of these things has happened yet for the Cyclones, but it won't be much longer. ISU will host Xavier on December 23, play at Virginia on December 31 and at San Diego State on January 3. It was a good job by Coach Morgan to get these games on the schedule. This three-game stretch will do a nice job of preparing the Cyclones for the Big 12 schedule that is just around the corner.

(Marty Gallagher founded the popular web site IowaSportsOpinions.com. You can e-mail him at Marty@IowaSportsOpinions.com.)

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