The Selection Committee always looks at "good wins" as a key category and the Hawks could add another one to the list on Wednesday night in Ames. While the Cyclones are not a Top 20 team at this point, ISU has played tremendous basketball, for the most part, at Hilton Coliseum.
Two years ago, Iowa played very well and grabbed a 78-53 victory in Ames. Last season, the Hawkeyes scored a 54-53 NIT victory at Hilton. So, there should be some confidence on this team that it can go into Ames and get the job done.
But, it won't be easy. That's for sure. Especially considering the recent "downsizing" of the Hawkeye roster.
I'm not sold that losing Nick DeWitz will be a tremendous loss this season for the Hawks, although it does hurt their depth a bit. The loss of Jared Reiner, however, is a HUUUUUGE one. Although 90% of Hawkeye fans seem to under-rate Reiner's value to this team, the fact remains that the senior center was Iowa's second-leading scorer (10.5 ppg) and the Hawks' top rebounder (7.2 rpg), while playing just 23.5 minutes per game. He may not have been pretty, but Reiner was definitely effective. And his presence will be missed greatly by this Iowa team.
So, what do the Hawkeyes need to do to earn their third straight victory in Ames? Here are 10 things that I think will give Iowa a chance to win…
Get the ball into the paint. This has been the critical point for Iowa's half-court offense for the last few seasons…if not forever. Without Reiner, the Hawks won't have the size advantage, but this remains a team that is most successful scoring from the inside-out. Against ISU's man-to-man, one of the best ways for Iowa to get into the paint is by penetration…either from Pierce or Horner. The Cyclones like to front the low post, which means that anytime Iowa can get the ball into the high-post area, the low post player should be able to seal his man. But, Iowa must actively flash into the high post and penetrate to that area, as well. Versus ISU's 2-3 zone, the Hawks must get the ball moving from corner to corner to stretch the defense out. Usually, the weak spots are in the high- and mid-post areas, which is where Glen Worley can be pretty effective (as a shooter, not a penetrator). Regardless of ISU's defensive strategy, the Hawkeyes must focus on getting the ball into the low post to guys like Sean Sonderleiter, Greg Brunner and Worley. Then, these guys must move the ball quickly, either for a shot or to kick it back out. But, the offense cannot become too "horizontal" against Iowa State or this may be a 15-point spread in the early going.
Attack Jackson Vroman and Jared Homan. Clearly, both of these guys are high-energy players, capable of making "momentum-changing" plays. I've seen them do it at both ends of the floor. But, both of these veterans have the potential to get into foul trouble by always trying to block the shot…or always trying to get the rebound, even if they don't have position. On one hand, that can be seen as great effort…but on the other hand, a good team can exploit that weakness by attacking those guys, ball-faking them with regularity and getting one or both in foul trouble. If Iowa State has to play without either guy for many minutes on Wednesday night, Iowa should be able to make some hay in the paint.
Take care of the ball. The Cyclones have plenty of quickness on the perimeter with Will Blalock and Curtis Stinson. Vroman also poses quickness problems for most post players. So, Iowa will need to be sharp with the basketball, and set up their cuts and screens very well without the ball. At times, the Hawks have struggled with these concepts. At other times, they've done a decent job. One of my main concerns is that Iowa State will pack in its 2-3 zone pretty tightly and Iowa might attempt to force passes early in the possession, instead of working the clock and making the defense execute for 25 to 30 seconds.
Offensive patience. With a smaller rotation available to Coach Alford, I think it would help Iowa to work the ball around on offense—especially against ISU's 2-3 zone. This will shorten the game a little bit and may give guys like Sonderleiter and Brunner a chance to play more minutes. However, while Coach Alford loves to run the motion offense, I think Iowa needs to have two or three sets it can get into when the shot clock gets under 10 seconds. Right now, the option appears to be "get it to Pierce and watch him penetrate." That's not been terribly effective…or consistent. If you're going to exhibit offensive patience, you need to be able to run your offense with confidence in the final 10 seconds of the possession.
No easy looks for Sullivan. Thank you, Captain Obvious. The senior Cyclone is one of the purest perimeter shooters in the nation and if he gets on a roll, he can be EXTREMELY difficult to stop. So, Iowa needs to do a very good job from the outset of identifying Sullivan and giving help on him when necessary to deny him the ball, get a hand in his face and force him to put it on the floor in order to get shots. Boyd may get this assignment early, but I expect to see a few different guys rotate for this job. Sullivan has improved quite a bit on his pull-up jumper, but I still think he's MUCH more dangerous as a spot-up three-point shooter.
Box out. As active as Vroman (42 offensive RB) and Homan (37 offensive RB) are on the glass, this is going to be a critical area for Iowa. Plus, Stinson (26 offensive RB) and Marcus Jefferson (25 offensive RB) can be very good at attacking the offensive boards, as well. Only ONE Hawkeye will take the floor on Wednesday who has more than 22 offensive rebounds (Brunner with 37). In order to keep ISU from going on six- to eight-point runs, the Hawks will need to play solid half-court defense and hold the Cyclones to one shot per possession as often as possible.
Mix up defensive looks. With the quickness off the dribble of Blalock and Stinson, I don't think Iowa can afford to play 40 minutes of man-to-man against ISU. Plus, if anyone gets into foul trouble, the lack of depth will become a factor pretty quickly. I'd like to see the Hawks open up in a 2-3 zone, mix in some man-to-man and throw in a few possessions of 1-3-1 each half. Also, if Stinson or Blalock leaves the floor, a box-and-1 on Sullivan isn't a bad idea, either. When a team is struggling with its man-to-man, it can be a great idea to mix in some other defenses, just to heighten the awareness and concentration of the team (if not its enthusiasm)…and varying your defensive looks almost always slows an opposing offense down a little bit.
Transition defense. Iowa has done a better job in this area this year than in any of the last four seasons. It will be an important category on Wednesday as the Hawks don't want fast-break baskets by ISU to get the Hilton crowd any more lively than normal. Horner and Boyd must rotate back quickly—and Pierce will have this responsibility at times, as well—and force the Cyclones to make a few passes on the break…enough to give the other Hawks a chance to get down the floor and defend. Nothing gets momentum going like a couple of easy baskets. And transition defense is usually about discipline…not athleticism or luck.
Don't allow runs of eight points or more. Hilton Coliseum can provide one of the finest home-court advantages in college basketball. So, Iowa needs to do everything it can to keep the crowd out of the game…as much as possible, anyway. If the Hawkeyes can limit ISU's offensive rebounds, play strong transition defense, take care of the ball and show some offensive patience, they will have a good chance of limiting the Cyclones' runs. A breakdown or two in any of those categories, however, and the door is open for ISU to reel off some easy baskets.
Stay close until the final two minutes. As we saw in last season's NIT match-up between these two teams, anything can happen in the final minutes of a tight game. Horner drilled a huge three-pointer that proved to be the difference. Both teams have won some close games this year, so it would be interesting to see which team would handle the pressure more effectively. It could be another classic finish between the two in-state rivals.
Prediction: This should be a tremendous game for fans of both schools to watch. 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. I look for Horner to bounce back with a solid performance and Brunner to finish with about 14 points and eight boards. If Boyd is able to score 14+ points, this should be a great game…and Iowa will have a very good chance to win. However, two areas that could prove costly are the Hawks' lack of depth and matching up with Vroman. Plus, I don't know how many teams have won THREE times in a row at Hilton in the last 20 years. Final score: ISU 74, Iowa 68.
(Marty Gallagher founded the popular web site IowaSportsOpinions.com. You can e-mail him at Marty@IowaSportsOpinions.com.)