The real season is now underway for the Cyclones and it is starting off with a bang and what will likely be their most challenging test of the season. Winning at Phog Allen is no small task. While no team has done it more than Iowa State since the start of the Big 12, the feat itself is still extremely rare (the Cyclones have done it three times while no other team has beaten the Jayhawks in league play more than once). In fact, Bill Self has won more conference title sat Kansas (8) than games he has lost in Lawrence (7). That says something.
The Cyclones enter the opening game of Big 12 play with a 10-3 non-conference record where they have yet to have a real quality win but have avoided all bad losses to date. That isn’t something to be especially proud of but it does leave them in decent shape to finish out the rest of their NCAA tournament resume.
Kansas is again one of the best teams in the nation. The emergence of freshman Ben McLemore and the improved Jeff Withey are the headliners of this team but I think their best attribute is the depth of rock solid smart players that do what they need to do without making many mistakes. Seniors like Travis Releford, Elijah Johnson, and Kevin Young are key contributors even if they don’t fit the mold of the usual Jayhawk McD’s All-American. Their playing time is rounded out with backup point guard Naadir Tharpe and freshmen posts, Perry Ellis and Jamari Traylor.
As previously mentioned there are not as many scary matchups up and down the roster as we are accustomed to, but don’t let that lull you to sleep with their bevy of solid contributors. One other worthy note about their roster is their lack of size up front. Withey is a legit seven footer but while Young is 6’-8” he’s on the thin side and the other two true posts in Ellis and Traylor don’t get a whole lot of minutes. The Cyclones will not face the same size advantage that they usually would in Lawrence with this year’s roster.
Below is the player impact comparison for each team. The only players included are the ones that register at least 30% of the minutes per game. Each column is color coded from red to blue (red being best and blue being the worst) in a gradual shading.
You can see right away that Releford, McLemore, Johnson, and Withey get the lion’s share of the Jayhawk minutes with the next few spots being fairly evenly distributed, but Young has the edge. McLemore and Withey are the two main scoring options and lead the way in points and the distribution of made and attempted field goals.
Meanwhile Releford is leading the way in effective field goal percentage and scoring efficiency in terms of points per field goal attempted. The biggest disparity in favor of the Cyclones in the scoring stats is Tyrus McGee and his 3.34 made three pointers per 50 possessions that he plays. That is nearly double that of the top Kansas performers.
In the rebounding battle Melvin Ejim is leading the Big 12 in defensive rebounding percentage while the rest of the load for ISU is pretty evenly split. Kansas gets the vast majority of their rebounding from Withey and Young. Interestingly, Withey and Ellis are the only ones for KU that really show up in the offensive rebounding percentage. Note that Kansas is currently last in the Big 12 in offensive rebounding percentage at 32.1%.
Korie Lucious is clearly leading the Cyclones in offensive creation via assists while Elijah Johnson and Naadir Tharpe are the standouts for Kansas. The Cyclones have a few more guys standing out in steals but the Jayhawks have Withey that dominates the middle and you can see that with block percentages. No one else is even close to his 19.7%.
A scary thought for the Cyclones and the turnover issues they have faced is evident when you look at the turnover percentages. Lucious and Clyburn are the two guys that register the most minutes, have the ball in their hands the most often, and they have the two worst turnover rates in this game.
When the Jayhawks have the ball…
Kansas sure isn’t flashy outside of McLemore but they are definitely capable as evidenced by their efficiency numbers. They are leading the league in points per possession, points per field goal attempt, three point field goal percentage, two point field goal percentage, field goal percentage, effective field goal percentage and overall assist to turnover ratio.
The Cyclone defense has only been in the elite range of the Big 12 in the always important defensive rebounding percentage at 74.69%. Everywhere else they have been pretty average thus far in the season. Decent with three point defense, steals, and turnovers created.
The Cyclones have really had issues with handling dribble penetration this year and their defensive rotations. Usually the first helper gets there but the second helper doesn’t have as clean of a record. With Kansas that will kill a defense. They won’t drive and kick for a three, they’ll drive and dump for a dunk or an easy layup.
When the Cyclones have the ball…
It has been fairly well documented that the Cyclones are doing well in scoring outputs in the first 13 games this season. The Cyclones are currently tied for 7th in the NCAA scoring 82 points per game and leading the Big 12 in that same stat. However, they are scoring 1.11 points per possession, which is just 3rd in the Big 12. That is largely due to pace of play, obviously. The Cyclones average 73.9 possessions per game while only Texas Tech and Texas are also above 70+ possessions per game in the Big 12. The Cyclones have scored 70+ points in every game so far this season and 15 games dating back to last year. The last time Iowa State has done that was from 2/27/1988 to 12/16/1989 when ISU scored 70+ points in 41 consecutive games.
That is in part due to their 6.15 made three point shots for every 50 possessions, the best in the Big 12 (Baylor is 2nd best with 4.82). The Kansas defense is just 8th in the Big 12 in made three pointers given up per 50 possessions, which is largely attributed to the Jayhawk interior defense and one of the best shot blockers in the country in Jeff Withey; leaving opposing offenses more likely to hoist long balls than flirt with Withey in the middle.
The Cyclones are doing well and in the top four of most other scoring categories. The few areas of concern are their lack of made free throws, turnovers, and thus opponent steals. It is a similar story for the Kansas defense where they are in the top few places of many of the defensive categories. They aren’t garnering a lot of steals or forcing a lot of turnovers but in the end they are one of the top scoring defenses in the Big 12 and NCAA.
On any given night a team like Iowa State can pull out an unexpected win, even against an elite team on the road like Kansas. That is especially true if the Cyclones get hot behind the arc and avoid the silly turnovers. I’ve said for a while that playing in Phog Allen is like quick sand—the more a team flails, struggles, and simply freaks out due to desperation the more they sink and the worse it all gets.
Things have a way of escalating (or declining) quickly for opposing teams in Lawrence. The Jayhawks are 99-1 in their last 100 games at home, which seems solid. Kansas is coming off a game where they were pushed by an unranked but good Temple team, in part because they’re lead by experienced and heady players and they only registered four turnovers for the game. Let’s face it as well, if the Cyclones are to pull out a shocker their going to not only need some luck but probably just some flat out missed shots from Kansas.
My best guess for how the game plays out: the Cyclones will get off to a big of a slow start but hit the occasional shot to stay within range. ISU may even keep it close and less than double digits. But just like last year’s game in Lawrence, I think eventually Kansas will salt the game away and win by 12-15 when it is all said and done.
There’s no shame with a loss in Lawrence and if that does occur the key will be how the Cyclones respond over the stretch of five games that follows.