3-Game Stretch a Wake-Up Call

Two weeks ago, the Cyclones were 6-0 and rolling through the easiest part of their schedule, raising plenty of optimism among the ISU faithful. A new coach, a couple of talented freshmen starters, a new style of play…the excitement level was rising with every victory.

But, we knew that the next three games of the non-conference schedule (Xavier, at Virginia, at San Diego State) would tell us a whole lot MORE about what kind of team this is than any string of lopsided wins over the likes of Mercer, Idaho State and IFPFPWPFP.

A couple of weeks later, we have some answers. Some are good. Some aren't so good. This is part of the "beauty" of playing a more difficult non-conference schedule… Not only is the team more prepared for league action, but you find out what you have—and what you REALLY need to work on—before you play teams like Oklahoma and Kansas.

As Coach Wayne Morgan's team heads into its Big 12 opener against Missouri (fresh off a rout of Iowa on Saturday) in Ames on Wednesday night, there are several areas that need improvement. Based on the numbers from the past three games, here are some of the areas that concern me…

Team defense. In the last three games, the Cyclones have given up an average of 77.3 points per game. Clearly, that "trend" will not cut the mustard in the Big 12. You simply can't win on a consistent basis when you're giving up that many points. In addition, it the last two road games, ISU allowed an average of 85.5 points. Yikes!

The disparity in free-throw shooting. In the last three games, Iowa State has shot 46 free throws. Its opponents have MADE 44 free throws. That's a terrible ratio, my friends. The percentages don't compare very well, either. The Cyclones are 27 of 46 (59%) and their opponents are 44 of 61 (72%) from the line in those games. Good teams won't suffer this type of disparity for very long, for two reasons: 1) They will attack the basket enough—and get the ball in the paint enough—to get to the foul line more often, and 2) They will play solid enough defensively to avoid giving up so many free throws. Coach Morgan and his staff must get this turned around.

The disparity in three-point shooting. In the last three games, ISU has made 13 of 38 (34%) three-pointers. Its opponents have made 24 of 69 (35%) from downtown. The percentages aren't very different, but the opponents have nailed almost twice as many as the Cyclones. Again, not a very good trend. Iowa State must do a better job of identifying shooters in transition and stopping dribble penetration (without requiring help) in order to cut down on the open looks its opponents are getting from the three-point line.

Turnovers. In the last three games, ISU averaged 17.0 turnovers per game…waaaay too many. Its opponents averaged 9.3 per game. That's eight possessions per game right there…GIVEN AWAY. As my mother would say, "My goodness!" Or as my father would say, "That's TERRRRRRRIBLE!" You simply can't make twice as many turnovers as your opponent and win. Unless you're playing a team that's totally over-matched. ISU only has one more game like that on its schedule—Northern Colorado—but other than that, the Cyclones need to value the basketball more than they are right now. Part of this problem is the function of having freshmen guards (Curtis Stinson had 10 and Will Blalock had 8). But, the turnover "leader" during this stretch is Jackson Vroman (a senior) with 11. There's no excuse for that. And Marcus Jefferson (another senior) made 7 turnovers in only 52 minutes. Not good.

The defense isn't aggressive enough. While looking at a box score, it's easy to see that a large disparity in free-throw shooting and turnovers have really hurt ISU in the last couple of games. But, when you look at the category of steals, you can see one more symptom of the problem…a defense that's too soft. In the last three games, the Cyclones have made a grand total of 12 steals, including ONE against Virginia. ISU's opponents have made 33 steals during that time. While the total number of team fouls was about the same (55 to 52), the Cyclones' opponents were much more opportunistic, making almost three times as many steals. Here's a stat that may floor you… Take away Blalock (4) and Stinson (5) and the rest of the Cyclones accounted for a meager THREE steals in those three games. That's borderline incredible. You can make a steal almost by accident if you're on the floor for 25 minutes, simply by having active hands and an aggressive attitude. Subtract Blalock and Stinson and Iowa State's players made THREE steals in a total of 389 minutes of playing time! That's not just passive…that's ASLEEP.

There have been some things that concern me regarding the individual players, as well. For example…

Blalock averaged 6.3 points in those three games. I think he's capable of being more of a scoring threat. He only made ONE three-pointer in those games, which simply won't keep defenses honest against ISU.

Sullivan only got to the foul line a total of FOUR times in those three games. For a guy who's a tremendous free-throw shooter—and one of ISU's best scorers—that's not nearly enough. Also, Sullivan's assist-to-turnover ratio was 1:1 in those games, which isn't good enough for a senior guard with all of his experience.

Stinson was 3 of 10 at the free-throw line. He's a fantastic player, but this is something he needs to get solved. Anyone can make free throws with a 15-point lead against Liberty, but the pressure is a lot greater against top-notch competition. Let's hope this stretch was an aberration. Six assists to 10 turnovers isn't exactly a recipe for success, either. But, I'll have to admit, for everything that this freshman IS doing, it's pretty hard to be very critical of him.

Vroman only got to the free-throw line 9 times, which isn't enough. And he only made 4 of them. Obviously, his 11 turnovers was too many. But, the most surprising stat to me was that he had ZERO steals in those three games.

OK, enough of the critique. A 7-2 start isn't all that bad. There are still plenty of reasons for Iowa State fans to be fired up about this basketball team and its potential this winter. Overall, Blalock and Stinson have been terrific. Sullivan is one of the best shooters in the nation and is bound to break out once Big 12 action gets underway. Homan is a much-improved player. Vroman is an active, athletic big man, who presents match-up problems for most teams. Jefferson has shown flashes of his ability and versatility. The team has greatly improved its rebounding numbers recently.

And if the Cyclones can improve in some of the aforementioned weaknesses as this season goes along, I still think ISU could be "dancing" in March.

A victory over Quin Snyder's Tigers on Wednesday would be a HUUUGE step in the right direction. For that to happen, the Cyclones will need to give a much stronger—and more aggressive—defensive effort, take care of the basketball and hopefully, get a nice dosage of "Hilton Magic!"

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

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