After the 88-70 loss on Saturday, I revisited my initial list and realized the Cyclones went about 0-for-10. And so it goes.
However, I believe that a 10-3 start to this season is as good as anyone could have hoped for going into the "Big Game" this week. There is still plenty of reason for optimism that an invitation to the "Big Dance" remains a possibility.
So, there is a whole lot to gain—for both teams—going into this in-state match-up at Hilton Coliseum on Wednesday night. Bragging rights are on the line, of course, and a chance to participate in "March Madness" may be at stake, as well.
The odds look pretty good for ISU in this one. The Cyclones have played very well this season, for the most part. Iowa, on the other hand, has had some definite lapses. Plus, the 9-5 Hawkeyes will be without senior center Jared Reiner and it appears that academic issues have ended the short-lived Iowa career of Nick DeWitz. But, before you etch an Iowa State victory in stone, keep in mind that Iowa came into Ames last spring and grabbed a 54-53 victory in an NIT game most people expected to go to the Cyclones.
What does Iowa State need to do to secure a victory against the Hawkeyes? Here are 10 things that I think would help the Cyclones' cause…
Play a 2-3 zone, but identify Brody Boyd on the perimeter. Make guys like Jeff Horner, Pierre Pierce, Ben Rand and Glen Worley knock a couple three-pointers down before they become a "priority" defensively behind the arc. Iowa's best chance to stay in the game at Hilton is to get the ball into the paint with consistency. ISU's best chance to keep that from happening is to tighten up its 2-3 zone. However, the "X factor" for the Hawkeye offense is Boyd. The Cyclones can't allow him to get rolling with three-pointers. Say what you want to about his size, speed or whatever else, but Boyd has had some big scoring nights against good teams away from Iowa City throughout his career. (See Louisville earlier this season, for example.) If Iowa State can take away the paint and hold Boyd in check, a victory will be in order.
Front Sean Sonderleiter and Greg Brunner in the low post. When either of these guys—or Glen Worley—receive the ball in the low post, double them immediately from the weak side of the floor. Iowa's best passer in the post—by FAR—was Jared Reiner. Without Reiner, the Hawks' ball movement from the low-post area could be shaky, at best…and probably a little slow. A solid double-team should force some turnovers out of the Iowa post players.
Box out. At times, half of Iowa's offense comes from second-chance points and put-backs that are the direct result of offensive rebounds. Brunner can be the most dangerous offensive rebounder, but Worley, Pierce and Sonderleiter are all pretty active, at times. Again, without Reiner, the Hawks might not be AS dangerous in this area as they were…but then again, they just might be a little hungrier. The key is to keep them from getting on six- to eight-point runs due to second-chance points.
Force Pierce to penetrate to his left. The sophomore "point forward" is Iowa's most versatile offensive weapon, at times. But, I think he penetrates much more effectively to his right. When he goes left, he likes to shoot a floating jumper, which has never been a very high-percentage shot or he'll spin back to try to finish with his right. I think it would be a good idea to really overplay his right hand to slow down an otherwise very quick first step.
Transition defense. The Hawkeyes have been releasing Boyd occasionally when an opponent shoots and a quick board results in a run-out for a layup. One thing that Coach Floyd and Coach Eustachy were VERY big on that Coach Morgan doesn't seem to subscribe to is rotating both guards back defensively when ISU takes a shot. Even if Coach Morgan doesn't want to use this strategy each night out, it would be an effective way to keep Boyd from getting uncontested layups, which is really inexcusable.
Trap Horner occasionally after the sophomore gets the ball past half court. Why? He is clearly the quarterback of the Iowa offense, which looks pretty inconsistent when he's sitting out or when someone else runs the show. Iowa State could either trap Horner out of its 2-3 zone or run-and-jump at him when he crosses the center line. Not every time, but once every handful of possessions may create some havoc. Also, if ISU is playing some man-to-man, when Pierce is out of the game (which might not be very often), I think it would be interesting to have Stinson match up on Horner a little bit and move Blalock to someone else. This will get a bigger, more physical body on Iowa's point guard at times…and it might also save Blalock's legs a little bit.
Attack the lane against Iowa's man-to-man defense. The Hawkeyes have struggled lately with their man-to-man in the half court. Blalock and Stinson (and probably Jefferson) should be able to take the ball off the dribble and either get to the paint or, at least, draw some help from another defender. This will inevitably open up one-on-one match-ups in the low post areas and free up three-point shooters. Whenever Pierce is sitting, ISU will have a definite quickness advantage on the floor, but overall, the Cyclones should look to be aggressive with the dribble all night.
Defensive patience. Part of Iowa's strategy will undoubtedly be to work the shot clock down a little more than usual, especially with Coach Alford's depleted bench. One thing that makes that pretty effective is when a defense gets antsy and impatiently tries to create a turnover…or takes an unnecessary gamble. While it may work sometimes—and I wouldn't want to play with a passive mentality—the key is to play solid defense for the entire possession and not allow an easy basket because someone gets out of position late in the shot clock.
Pound the ball inside to Vroman and Homan. I have not been terribly impressed with Iowa's low-post defense all season…and that was with Reiner. The Hawks have a tendency to play behind the low post and either double-down pretty slowly or leave the post defender in a one-on-one match-up. Either way, Vroman and Homan will be ready to attack. Last season, Vroman was a very difficult match-up in ISU's victory in Iowa City. If Erek Hansen is on the floor, any Cyclone would be wise to ball fake and step through to the basket (a la Kevin McHale) as Hansen will leave his feet 90% of the time.
Vroman and Homan need to stay out of foul trouble. If either of these guys has to sit for major minutes, I can see a guy like Brunner making Iowa State pay on the offensive glass. The emotions and intensity will be high from the outset, but Vroman and Homan will both need to remain focused, and NOT get themselves into foul trouble by trying to block every shot around the basket. It may also mean "conceding" a rebound here or there when an Iowa player has inside position.
Prediction: This should be a tremendous game for fans of both schools to watch. While I think that Iowa State is the "favorite" at this point, the Hawkeyes have won their last two games at Hilton Coliseum. Whichever team plays better half-court defense, takes care of the ball and wins the battle in the lane will surely come away with a victory. My guess is that Vroman will have a double-double and Sullivan will nail at least four three-pointers. Jefferson and Staple will give ISU a nice spark off the bench. Final score: ISU 74, Iowa 68.
(Marty Gallagher founded the popular web site IowaSportsOpinions.com. You can e-mail him at Marty@IowaSportsOpinions.com.)