If, for example, one would have had a glance at just the Cyclones final stat box, the shooting percentage of 50.8 from the field, 45.8 from three-point range with 11 threes, would have likely indicated a solid ISU victory. The 87 points exceeded the season average by six, and the 61 shots per game was in the target number area, even with just eight offensive rebounds.
Iowa State was also above its season average in free throw percentage (77.8 percent), and that, too, would seem to have played to their advantage - except that it never got there as often as anticipated. And here's where the outliers begin.
Iowa State rates among the teams which foul the least, while West Virginia has a well-founded reputation for committing such infractions. The Cyclones, in fact, rank fourth in the NCAA in fewest fouls per game at 15.5. The Mountaineers? They're also fourth - from the very bottom. At 23.3 fouls per game, WVU is ahead of just UNC-Wilmington, Washington and The Citadel in terms of average number of fouls per contest, putting it at 343rd in the nation.
And yet Iowa State was whistled for 21 while West Virginia had only 14. Neither team got into the bonus in the first half until there were just 37.6 seconds left, and the Mountaineers finished the opening period with just five fouls; Iowa State had seven.
"We're one of the teams that foul the least, and they foul the most, and we had 21 to their 14," ISU head coach Steve Prohm said. "I don't know what you do with that."
That might have been a concern in some aspects, with West Virginia trying through a combination of fouls and fatigue to get into the opposing team's bench. But here it seemed to help. Iowa State showed a lack of physicality and ability to defend on the interior, and that opened the floodgates for Jaysean Paige to take players both off the bounce, and get solid mid-range jumpshots.
Devin Williams routinely scored from the block, and amassed six offensive rebounds and nine overall. Jonathan Holton had four boards on the offensive end, and Nate Adrian even sliced through the Cyclones on the inside for a reverse lay-up from the baseline. It was a showcase of why Iowa State ranks last in the Big 12 in points allowed per game at 75.9. That average is five points worse than Oklahoma, the second-to-last team, and that five-point gap is larger than the gap between top-ranked WVU (66.8 ppg) and OU (71.0 ppg). In other words, Iowa State's statistical defense shows a larger discrepancy between itself and the next closest conference team than the gap between all the rest of the teams combined.
And with ISU also not fouling, and indeed giving up some lightly contested buckets, the flow of play created longer stretches without stoppages, which again helped West Virginia as it began to restock its numbers advantage with the return of Paige and Daxter Miles, along with Jonathan Holton finding his form after the four-game layoff two weeks ago. ISU wanted to spread the floor and make the game more finesse, but when it did that, it never slowed West Virginia's ability to put pressure on the rim, which also opened step-in threes from the outside off the penetrate-and-kick.
"I thought we had more bounce," WVU head coach Bob Huggins said. "I told them (Sunday) I thought it was the best practice we have had in a long time. We were bouncing around again."
Along with scoring a whopping 49 points in the first half and another 48 in the second, West Virginia's pressure was significantly better than it was against Texas and Oklahoma. Texas often snapped the double team traps with quick-decision passes, or simply dribbling through the middle of two defenders. before getting the ball to the center of the floor and attacking the rim, with with Javan Felix or Isaiah Taylor. Oklahoma also challenged the bucket, then was able to kick back out to Buddy Hield or Isaiah Cousins for quality looks. And when the Sooners missed, the rebounds typically went long, and were gobbled up by the OU backcourt because the Mountaineer guards weren't finding and sealing a man.
That didn't happen as much against Iowa State. The Cyclone guards aren't as physical, and WVU trapped much more effectively, with tighter control and better effort. It was surprising, really, that a three-guard look with a forward like Georges Niang who can handle would have nearly twice the turnovers as did Texas and Oklahoma.
Flipping to West Virginia's statistics, the ones that jump off are clear. The bench scored 69 points, two shy of the school record 71, and the Mountaineers hit shots (49.3 percent), even from three-point range. WVU canned 9-of-23 from three, good for 39.1 percent, and they actually got stronger as the game progressed, making 4-of-9 in the second half. It also had a clear advantage rebounding (43-29, including 18-8 on the offensive end) while also getting, and making, more shots.
"We understand that things have to continue to get better on the defensive end," Prohm said. "We aren’t really trying to pressure and deny. We just have to keep everything tight and then we have to contest all shots. We can’t let guys size us up and make uncontested shots. When they miss, we have to go get it. We just have to make things tighter. We have to do a better job guarding the dribble and really staying at home and being in gaps. If you heard me over there a hundred times I’m yelling ‘Gaps! Gaps! Gaps!’ that’s big. Really making them make jump shots, and we have to rebound better, that’s the biggest thing. If you held them to nine (offensive rebounds) for the game you probably win, but we didn’t."
To its credit, West Virginia did what it had to, and took advantage of all of Iowa State's warts. But there won't be many other match-ups that offer that type of hands-off defense - or one in which WVU is whistled so infrequently. So the Mountaineers must continue to be effective from the line and get extra possessions via rebounding or turnovers. Pair that with the return of Paige, Miles and Holton, and WVU will have the numbers and quality depth and talent to challenge for a second place league finish and position themselves, mentally and physically, for the postseason.