Iowa State is a better basketball team with Georges Niang; that much is really obvious. But, Georges won’t be available in the round of 32 of the NCAA Tournament so there is no sense in worrying about how much Iowa State will struggle in his absence. Similar to how Iowa State had to reload at the start of each of the last two seasons and establish an identity this team will have to do the same. Only, this will have to be done while sprinting to the finish line of the season with less than 48 hours to prepare. Iowa State’s margin for error just shrunk dramatically.
When teams have to replace players from season to season it is never done in a player for player trade while playing the exact same way. The method shifts and the load must be distributed across the board.
But now is probably a good time to offer up hopefully a comforting reminder; Iowa State still has the Big 12 Player of the Year at their disposal and his comrade that was 1st Team All Big 12. Yes, I have been in the camp of Niang being ISU’s most important player, especially on offense, because so much of it has been dependent upon him and the automatic mismatch he usually generates. But, Kane and Ejim are not bad places to start in figuring out this new puzzle.
There are a few interesting storylines before the game even starts; Marcus Paige being an Iowa native, Fred Hoiberg having squared off with Roy Williams countless times as a player when Roy coached at Kansas, and that North Carolina ended Hoiberg’s playing career at Iowa State in the second round of the NCAA Tournament. (A team that featured Jerry Stackhouse and Rasheed Wallace).
All stats via KenPom.com
While most of the questions for Sunday’s game against North Carolina will center on how the Cyclones will adapt and move forward offensively, I want to start on the defensive side of the ball. North Carolina is long and athletic up front and do almost all of their damage inside the arc. 62% of their points are from two point shots, the second most in the country. They do that while shooting 49.7% on two point shots (118th) which isn’t bad but is really just above mediocre.
They make just 33.3% of their three point shots (217th) but they shoot nearly the fewest in the country with just 20.9% of their field goal attempts being from outside the arc (350th out of 351 teams).
They play at a tempo that Iowa State will be comfortable with at 70.7 possessions per game and they are the 12th quickest team in the country in putting up shots on their possessions. The Tarheels are 76th in turnover percentage and 87th in free throw rate, both solid as components but not their greatest strength. There greatest strength is cleaning up their missed shots. UNC rebounds 38.3% of their missed shots which is the 13th best in the country. That creates a lot of extra opportunities to score.
Defensively, you could argue that Iowa State won’t necessarily be worse off without Niang. Not that he is a terrible defender, but that isn’t where he makes his biggest impact. However, if you replace the majority of Niang’s minutes with smaller guys like Naz Long and Matt Thomas then you have to adjust your defense accordingly.
While Hoiberg’s tenure is slathered with examples of playing what is typically considered unorthodox by utilizing versatile players and exploiting mismatches, he has almost always played it straight up on defense. Straight man to man defense with some switching screens when the personnel justifies it. There has always been a strong focus on funneling shots to guys in places where they don’t shoot as well and forcing long two point shots over interior attempts or three pointers. The only other thing ISU does regularly which isn’t so common is how they defend ball screens by forcing the ball handler completely away from even using the screen (known as “icing” the screen).
But a thought hit me this morning. Hoiberg’s final year at Iowa State was under the helm of Tim Floyd. A guy whose defensive schemes were all but traditional. Floyd very frequently implemented types of junk defenses that included full face guarding of one or two of the opposition’s best scorers, the triangle and two and…the box and one. (The triangle and two plays man to man defense with two players and leaves the other three players in a zone and the box in one is man to man with one player and the remaining players in a box shaped-ish zone.)
Of course, it also just so happens that Hoiberg does still talk to Floyd regularly but how ready he’d be to implement a defense like that depending on how much they work on it is the real question. But this is why it may not be a bad idea; North Carolina has one three point shooter that is consistently a pain in defense’s sides. Marcus Paige.
Paige is a 38.9% three point shooter and has made 82/211 of his shots. Only one other Tarheel has attempted more than 35 three point shots OR made at least 30% of their attempts and that is Leslie McDonald who has made 39/129 three pointers for 30.2%.
With ISU’s further undersized line for this game and UNC having just one shooter that can really cripple a defense, a box and one may not be a bad choice. Monte Morris chasing and in full deny of Marcus Paige all game to limit his attempts with Ejim and Hogue fight off the bigs on the block as best as they possibly can with Kane and the fifth player on the court near the top of the lane. Kane can dip in to help with his strength and Edozie can give good defensive minutes as well. Pack that zone in tight to the lane and make UNC hit jump shots.
If ISU plays it well enough they could be able to hide defenders like Ejim to prevent fouls but if there is confusion on that back line the fouling could easily go the other way. The other concern there is the rebounding above. Rebounding out of a zone can be difficult and going box and one could really exacerbate that situation.
Lastly, I saw Travis Hines floating the thought of playing “Hack-a-Heel” by sending the Tarheels to the line when needed as they are the 9th worst free throw shooting team in the country at 62.6% and eight Tarheels shoot worse than that while just Paige, Nate Britt, and Joel James shoot better than 77%. And who has been known to implement that strategy early and often? Tim Floyd.
Offensively, old reliable will not be available. The common thought here has to be that Iowa State may play more closely to the past couple of years and really spread the floor and attack the rim and kick to open shooters. Kane, Ejim, and Hogue are all still capable of hurting defenses in the paint. But, Niang being out means a big guarding Hogue and a lost mismatch with him posting up. But, Kane should still be able to utilize his size on the post.
North Carolina does have a pretty good defense with the 23rd best scoring efficiency in the country that is fueled by their 64th best eFG% defense of 46.8%. They force turnovers at the 101st highest rate and are 170th in defensive rebounding. They do tend to put team’s on the free throw line with a free throw rate that is 205th. Teams have also been able to get three point looks just about whenever they have wanted by allowing the 214th most attempts in terms of percentage of total shots. While they have some size and block some shots it perhaps isn’t as many as you would guess at 12.6% of two point shots (50th).
We’ll likely see less ball screen action without Niang, though Ejim is also capable of filing that void to some extent. Playing the pick and roll game as well as the pick and pop for three point shots. Hogue could well end up with a bigger guy on him which would allow him to catch at 15 feet and try to beat his man off the dribble but while that’s a possibility he clearly isn’t the most polished offensive player.
Should the Tarheels play zone Iowa State will likely try to beat it like they always do, through the middle first. But instead of having Niang at the high post and Ejim on the baseline you would likely see Ejim on the high post and Hogue or Kane running the baseline (or Kane at the high post and Ejim on the baseline) but more so than usual, the Cyclones would need to make their three point shots to shot UNC out of the zone.
But in the end, I’m not sure the greatest factor in determining a winner will be the schematics of the game. I tweeted yesterday in a subtle response to something else I had hear/read: “In what year will we be done declaring a team will win a game because they care the most, want it more, or have more will to win?”
Though the point of that tweet was more about lazy analysis and the idea that at this juncture of the year any good break is caused by one player “wanting it more”, that statement will appear to fly in the face of what I’m about to say, but I assure you, it doesn’t. But I want to talk about toughness.
It’s unquantifiable but we all know it when we see it. And we’ve seen it a lot from Iowa State this year. At BYU, the Cyclones were in the closing minutes with a small lead and no Kane or Ejim on the court. But they pulled out the win.
Against Iowa ISU faced a five point deficit with less than two minutes on the clock but they made plays, Iowa missed some free throws, and got the win.
In Stillwater, ISU weathered three overtimes with no Georges Niang and Melvin Ejim sitting at four fouls but made play after play to stay alive long enough to win the game in the end.
The Cyclones have come back from large leads early in games and late in games countless times this season to grab wins.
The point? This team has seen adversity and been tough enough to persevere and fight and hang around and win more often than not. Their “will to win” isn’t working magic for them but their toughness and continual fight has kept them in games by doing what they needed to effort wise, schematically, and with their talent.
Losing Niang is a very big blow to the offense, I just don’t think it’s big enough for North Carolina to win. I’m not saying Iowa State is “due” will be their reason to win, but I do think they are due, and I do think they’ll win. Make some shots, maybe more from the perimeter than usual, and keep the Tarheels off the glass on offense and I love ISU’s chances.
Iowa State – 78
North Carolina – 76