I’m having a hard time getting this started. There is an element of disbelief to this Iowa State run to the Sweet Sixteen—just the fourth in school history (the fifth if you count the 1944 Final Four team that was just an eight team tournament). The ascension was initially quick in Hoiberg’s second year but this bench mark was just narrowly missed last season. The media attention and being just one of 16 teams still playing in the real tournament is almost a bit surreal despite being a near expectation since the calendar flipped to 2014.
Those expectations were slightly altered after the first round win over NC Central when Georges Niang went down with the broken foot. You don’t just lose arguably your best offensive player and one of your few guys over 6’6” in height and not miss a beat. Or at least, expectations shift a bit. Of course lowered expectations because of an injured player are meaningless in terms of what is still indeed possible.
Melvin Ejim is still the Big 12 Player of the Year and DeAndre Kane a first teamer and All-American by multiple media outlets. Dustin Hogue has been playing at a very high level since tournament play began and is averaging 14.4 points, 7.6 rebounds, and has made three of his last eight three pointers and 21 of his last 31 two point shot attempts. He has played a very large role in this post season run.
Of course, so has Naz Long. I detailed his resurgence with his three point shooting here. Since conference play started, Monte Morris has scored above 8.2 points per 50 possessions played seven times, four of those games have been in his last five games. In those last five games Monte has made seven of his nine three point attempts.
What you’re seeing is the growth of young guys and new guys in the program. They were already making this progress before Niang went down with the unfortunate injury. The injury revealed their progress to all of us fans and allowed those guys opportunities to step up. For this run to continue they will have to continue to play at a high level. So will their on the court leaders, DeAndre and Melvin.
All in all, Connecticut has had a very solid season. Prior to their NCAA tournament win over Villanova their best win was likely over a short-handed Florida squad in early December but they also beat Harvard, Cincinnati in two out of three games, and they went 3-0 against Memphis. They went 0-3 against Louisville and were swept by SMU while their worst loss was at Houston on New Year’s Eve. They don’t have a pile of great wins but by and large they took care of business against middling conference competition.
Stats via kenpom.com
The matchups are pretty interesting when you start looking at team performance. The Cyclones have the 10th best scoring offense and the Huskies have the 10th best scoring defense. At the other end of the court, UConn has the 57th best scoring offense and Iowa State’s defense is 58th. Dead heat.
When UConn has the ball they are a solid overall offense. They play at a pretty slow pace overall at just 65.2 possessions per game (235th). When you look at their offense, their three point shooting is the first number to jump out at you. They’re making 39.2% of their attempts (17th). For reference, last year’s Iowa State team made 37.4%. The difference is the utilization of that shot though. Last year, ISU hoisted up 43.8% of their field goal attempts from three point range while this year’s UConn team only does so on 34.0% of their shots (146th). You could argue they should be chucking up a lot more shots from deep.
UConn has five guys that have made at least 20 three pointers while converting on at least 35% of their attempts. Shabazz Napier is the headliner with 73 makes at 38.8% followed by Niels Giffey with a disgusting 55 makes at a clip of 51.9%, DeAndre Daniels with 46 makes at 44.7%, Ryan Boatright with 40 makes at 37.7%, and Lasan Kromah with 21 made threes at 35.6%. That is a lineup full of legitimate three point shooters.
Their eFG% is at 51.5% (88th) and is paced by that three point shooting as they make just 47.8% of their two point shots (211th). The Huskies shoot extremely well from the free throw line making 76.5% (9th) but they only get there at a rate of 38.7% (222nd). They don’t rebound the ball particularly well and are just okay with avoiding turnovers.
The Iowa State defense has had some struggles this year with opponent three point percentage but they have done well all year at defending shots inside the arc, despite being undersized. A lot of that relates to Hoiberg’s defenses funneling shots to preferred shooters for Iowa State in preferred spots. The Cyclones rarely force turnovers but rebound pretty well as a way of offsetting the possession creating stats. ISU also rarely fouls and will need to stick to that again, not just to keep UConn’s great shooters off of the line but to stay out of foul trouble.
When Iowa State has the ball it is a matchup of elite squads with both being top ten in scoring efficiency. Iowa State shoots the ball extremely well and very rarely turns the ball over. On top of that they rack up assists at the 9th highest rate and are 2nd in the country with their assist to turnover ratio.
The UConn defense does pretty well in all of the key areas but primarily their defensive eFG% but they do force a good number of turnovers and rarely foul. Their biggest hole as a defense is their rebounding percentage that is just the 249th best in the country.
One reason for their poor rebounding numbers could well tie back to one of their positives with how they are limiting opponent’s shooting accuracy. The Huskies block 15.7% of opponent’s two point shots which is the 10th best in the country. But, the downfall of trying to block a lot of shots is that it can lead to poor rebounding numbers. The reason being that defenders have to jump to block shots, if they fail to do so they are in the air and now out of position for any potential rebound. It will be interesting to see if ISU can negate their shot blocking potential with no Georges Niang to slice up the middle of their defense.
The premier shot blocker on their roster is Amida Briman, a seven foot freshman that is 4th in the country in blocked shot rate. Though he only averages 16 minutes or so per game. DeAndre Daniels is the other primary culprit blocking 5.2% of opponent two point shots with his lanky 6’9” frame.
Pretty surprisingly, and perhaps indicative of UConn’s rebounding woes on defense is that Napier is their second best rebounder on defense by grabbing 15.2% of available misses.
They’re most common lineup will likely be Napier, Boatright, Daniels, Kroman, and Giffey. Napier and Boatright are the shifty do it all guards that have to be kept out of the lane. A difficult task with as well as they shoot the ball from the outside. Daniels is tall but seems to float and play more like a wing than a post from what I’ve seen and he is pretty lanky, in fact their entire roster is pretty slight of build.
Napier is probably the most dynamic scoring guard that Iowa State will have seen this year in his ability to score from anywhere on the court and create for his teammates. Below is his shot chart this season compliments of shotanalytics.com and on the right you can see where his attempts come from. He relies plenty on the mid range jump shot. If he can be forced into those instead of shots from behind the arc ISU will be off to a good start.
I think Morris would do the best on Napier, who is the primary concern of the Cyclone defense. Not just for his scoring outbursts but he is also an elite creator with the 61st best assist rate in the country. Aside from that matchup we could see a lot of switching done from the Cyclone defense. Hogue, Ejim, and Kane especially can guard most of the spots on the court.
There won’t be a real size advantage for the most part for the Huskies. Aside from one or two guys with a couple of inches of advantage of which I don’t think they really play in a way to exploit that mismatch, there is Brimah but he isn’t likely to take a game over either. In some ways, I think ISU does better when they have a size disadvantage because that means they have the quickness advantage. All the while they are used to playing undersized on defense anyway.
It will be interesting to see how Hoiberg attacks the UConn defense. I don’t think Napier or Boatright can guard Kane, at all. If Niang were still in the lineup one of them would be forced to guard him or Hogue but that isn’t the case. That is one reason it may actually be an advantage to play Edozie more than some are anticipating. That shifts the matchups and would force one of those two on Hogue or Kane. One thing for sure is that whoever Brimah is guarding has to take advantage and will have to make some jump shots.
UConn’s three point shooting is the biggest concern with their offense. Typically that is spurred by a team penetrating into the paint and kicking or getting all the way to the rim. Even without a true rim protector playing for Iowa State the Cyclones may be better off focusing on chasing shooters off the three point line and taking chances at the rim, while not fouling. They have a very poor two point shooting percentage though it is impossible for me to tell how often those misses come at the rim or as mid range misses.
With Niang I think I would pick Iowa State to win with little thought, almost because of that shift in matchups alone. Even without Niang, and the slow pace that UConn will want to play in front of what could be a decisively Connecticut crowd I still think the Cyclones will win. The Huskies can’t be on fire and Iowa State will have to match some of their outside shooting but the key to me will be on the glass. Sneak in some second chance points on offense and on defense force some misses and grab some rebounds that can turn into transition opportunities.
One interesting trend given their tendency to play slower is that when they have played at a pace of 65 possessions per 40 minutes or faster they are 19-3 but when they play slower than that they are 9-5. When UConn scores 72 points or more they are 20-0 and when their opponents score 71 or more they are just 5-5.
On to the Elite Eight.
Iowa State – 72
UConn – 67