So, it's showtime.
That's why I thought this would be a good time to take a look at the strengths and weaknesses of this team—a scouting report of the Cyclones—to give you some areas to focus on during the next few weeks as ISU prepares itself for conference play.
Individuals (nine-man rotation):
Will Blalock: Doesn't seem to get rattled or make many freshman mistakes at the point. Has an outstanding 2.9 to 1 assist to turnover ratio. Very effective penetrating either direction…good left hand. He's a good three-point shooter, but seems reluctant to shoot it much (5 for 8 in five games). Definitely a "pass first, shoot second" mentality. Has a tendency to leave his feet to pass when he penetrates, which can get him into trouble. You shouldn't leave a post to get him at 12 feet, jab step at him and recover…he's looking to pass. Has only taken 23 FG attempts in 155 minutes. Play him straight up, but sit down a little off him from the arc until he shows that he WILL shoot it.
Jake Sullivan: GREAT shooter. Only needs a hint of daylight to get it up from three-point land. One of the best three-point shooters in the country. Do not leave him to double a post. Find him immediately in transition. Play him VERY tight and force him to put the ball on the floor with his left hand. When he penetrates, remain straight up, as he will look to initiate contact with the defender and if you leave your feet or move into him…he's an automatic free-throw shooter.
Curtis Stinson: Another heady freshman. Very good all-around player. Physical. Strong. Athletic. Like Blalock, shows no hesitation…knows he belongs on the floor. Great offensive rebounder for his size (6-2), you must box him out—physically—each possession. Stinson is a good scorer, but I don't think he's a pure shooter from three-point distance. He's 2 of 7 in five games from downtown and I don't think his shot looks great from long range. Very good off the dribble, in traffic and with mid-range pull-up jumpers. I think there are three keys to defending him: Sit down off him from 3-point range to help neutralize his penetration; Lead him across the lane on all cuts; Box him out aggressively on each possession.
Jackson Vroman: High-energy post player. When he gets on a roll, it lifts the entire team. Probably the key cog in the ISU machine. Front him in the low post…he's the Cyclones' best post-up scorer. Must give backside help against him as he is good at sealing…and ISU's perimeter players are adept at the lob-pass post feed. You MUST keep him off the offensive glass, as he's a relentless rebounder and will try to "keep alive" balls he can't corral. Poor free-throw shooter…foul him when he gets the ball inside of eight feet late in the game if you have fouls to use. Sit down off of him outside of 15 feet. Runs the floor extremely well for a big man, so you must work to beat him to the paint in transition.
Jared Homan: Solid, aggressive, physical post player. Show at least a half-front when he's in low- or mid-post. If you have a 6-10 center to use against him, you probably don't need to double down on him very often. However, he is quick and will try to out-work you. Beat him down the floor, sit down off of him outside of 15 feet, lead him from block to block and keep him off the offensive glass. Good shot blocker. Will leave his feet for ball fakes in the post. Ball fake and take it at him to draw fouls.
Marcus Jefferson: Slasher at a wing position. Wants to put it on the floor when he's on the perimeter. Decent pull-up jump shooter and also effective at getting to the basket. You must force him to go left with his dribble. Not an effective three-point shooter (0 for 2 in five games), so sit down off of him outside of 17 feet and you can double the post off of him. But, do NOT allow him to penetrate or get put-backs. As a wing, he's a decent garbage player. You cannot allow him to get four to six points on put-backs.
Damion Staple: Post player is a JC transfer. Show at least a half-front when he's in the low- or mid-post, much like Homan. If you've got a 6-10 center, you can play behind him. Play him physical and double down HARD on him if the strong-side wing is not a shooter. Try to pressure him into turnovers or hurried decisions in the post that way. He will rebound aggressively and goes to the rim. Get a body on him and keep him off the offensive glass.
Reggie George: Slighter build than Staple, but most of the same "rules" apply. He's been awful at the free-throw line (1 of 8), so don't worry about being physical with him. Only 2 offensive rebounds in 61 minutes makes you wonder about his intensity, timing and strength. May become a good low- to mid-post player, but he's not there yet.
John Neal: A walk-on who can shoot the three-pointer. He's made 4 of 9 bombs so far, so you've got to play him tightly and get a hand in his face. At 6-3, he's not a great rebounder (5 in 47 minutes), nor is he a particularly good ballhandler or passer (0 assists in 47 minutes). But, he's a hustler, a good defender and a good shooter. Play him tightly and force him to put it on the floor going left.
Strengths (in no particular order):
Running the floor. This is a pretty athletic group that is best when post players like Vroman get out on the break. Blalock is good at pushing it up the floor and Sullivan is a tremendous shooter, who must be identified in transition or he's almost automatic. If Vroman beats your post players down the floor, it's going to mean easy baskets. He catches the ball well on the run and is athletic and aggressive enough to finish.
Offensive balance and chemistry. With a "pass first" point guard, it usually helps the chemistry of the entire team. This is not a selfish group at the offensive end. Plus, they have good balance with four guys averaging in double figures.
Vroman's energy. When ISU is at its best, Vroman is usually in the thick of things. Tipping passes, rebounding, running the floor, flashing from block to block, keeping balls alive and finishing around the basket. He's a "momentum" type of player who gets the team going.
Sullivan's shooting. A great offensive weapon who commands the attention of your defense every night out. Even when he's not scoring well, he's drawing a defender away from the paint, which opens things up for ISU's post players and penetration lanes for the wings. He's also an under-rated passer and ballhandler. Great coming off of screens and wants the ball at crunch time.
Blalock and Stinson. These young guys have the intangibles you rarely see in freshmen. They are confident and hungry to show what they can do, but they both play good, sound TEAM basketball. Neither has appeared to force the issue much when faced with a slow start. Both are solid—if not better than that—at the defensive end, as well. Combined, they are averaging 9.4 assists per game.
Areas of Concern (in no particular order):
Unproven on the road or against top-notch competition. The next three weeks will tell us a lot more about Iowa State. Can the young guards handle the pressure on the road? What happens when a good team has a lead in the final five minutes against the Cyclones? I think ISU's players will respond well in these situations, but until it happens…you don't really know. Blalock is a big key.
Rebounding. In five games, Iowa State has been out-rebounded three times. With team that starts three guards, that may not be all that surprising, but it's not the Cyclones' size that has hurt them. This team needs to improve its ability to box out at all five spots on the floor…EVERY time a shot is up. This was definitely a point of emphasis under Floyd and Eustachy. If the board work does not improve, ISU will not make the "Big Dance."
Free throw shooting from post players. Make no mistake, this will hurt ISU in some close games this season if it doesn't improve quite a bit. Vroman is 8 for 17 (47%). Jefferson is 11 for 17 (65%). Staple is 2 for 5 (40%). George is 1 for 8 (13%). It's a good thing Homan is 15 for 21 (71%) or this entire group would be in trouble. Vroman is the biggest concern, of course, because ISU will want to go to him at the end of close games.
Three-point shooting depth. Sullivan is a great shooter, but beyond him, there are a lot of question marks. Why doesn't Blalock shoot more? Is Stinson a better long-range shooter than he's shown so far? How many minutes will Neal play in the Big 12? Is Jefferson a threat from the arc? If there is only ONE guy on the floor who can hurt you from three-point land, it's a whole lot easier for you to defend the paint and take away easy baskets. It's also a lot easier to close out penetration lanes with help defense. This is where Blalock could really help ISU's halfcourt offense against a good defense. And Tim Barnes would add this dimension, as well, if he returns.
Depth in the post. Vroman and Homan are both so aggressive that it's hard to believe that there will be many Big 12 games (especially on the road) where neither of them will be in any kind of foul trouble. That means that either Staple or George will need to be able to produce. So far, it's hard to tell if either of those newcomers is ready for that assignment.
How would I defend against Iowa State right now?
Against a lineup of Blalock, Sullivan, Stinson, Vroman and Homan, I would play a sagging man-to-man defense. I would front Vroman at all times and never leave Sullivan to double down on a post. I would sit down off of everyone but Sullivan until Blalock became more aggressive with his shot. One of the biggest keys would be to hold Iowa State to one shot per possession. Keep guys like Stinson and Vroman from getting put-backs or easy baskets.
If Blalock came out of the game—and Neal was also on the bench—I would see ISU as having only ONE guy who could shoot the three-pointer (Sullivan). So, I would go with a triangle-and-two, matching up with Sullivan and Vroman. That would allow my team to give help in the post on Vroman with the bottom of the triangle and hopefully, keep Stinson (and/or Jefferson) from getting all the way to the hole off the dribble for easy baskets.
When Sullivan sits, I would go to a sagging 2-3 zone. I would dare guys like Jefferson and Stinson to beat my team from the arc. I would try to clog up the paint to stop penetration and post feeds. The biggest key would be to find a body to box out when a shot is up. Vroman, Homan, Stinson and Jefferson are all quick enough—and aggressive enough—to find seams to offensive rebound well against a zone.
These are just a handful of my thoughts about the ISU basketball team through five games. Again, it's hard to make too many judgments this early in the season. But hopefully, looking at the Cyclones as an opponent might look at them will give us some key developments to watch for in the next few weeks before the Big 12 race gets underway.
While I'm very happy about the 5-0 start for ISU, I think there are still several question marks out there regarding this team. We'll start to get some pretty solid answers to those questions in the next four games. Hopefully, we'll like what we see and have visions of "March Madness" as Big 12 action begins.
(Marty Gallagher founded the popular web site IowaSportsOpinions.com. You can e-mail him at Marty@IowaSportsOpinions.com.)