SCOUTING THE CYCLONES
Iowa State gets overlooked when discussions of Big 12 basketball are held by those who skim the surface of college hoops and provide shallow analysis, but head coach Fred Hoiberg has put together an exciting, fast-paced team that is difficult to beat, especially at home. The Cyclones have won 16 in a row at Hilton Coliseum, including eight in a row in the Big 12, making the venue a snakepit for the opposition. It's been more than a year since ISU's last home loss.
The Iowa State attack, which ranks sixth in the nation at 82.5 points per game, gets scoring across the board. Frontcourt starters Melvin Ejim (Jr., 6-6) and Georges Niang (Fr., 6-7) score 10.8 and 11.5 points per game respectively. Ejim leads the league in reboumding, snaring 9.3 per outing, while Niang adds 5.3. In addition, the duo passes the ball well -- a must in Hoiberg's move it quick and shoot it quicker offense. They combine for 3.3 assists per outing, and don't have the huge disparity between assists and turnovers that many frontcourters do.
At guard, Will Clyburn (Sr., 6-7) leads the scoring parade with 14.3 points per game, but he's also an all-around threat (see a trend developing here?) He is the only player in the league to be in the Top 15 in scoring, rebounding and assists. Korie Lucious (Sr., 5-11), a graduate transfer from Michigan State, has been as productive as hoped, tallying 10.1 points and 5.4 assists per game, while Chris Babb (Sr., 6-5) provides more scoring support with 9.2 points per outing.
As if that wasn't enough, guard Tyus McGee (Sr., 6-2) comes off the bench firing. A 48% three-point shooter, he's the second leading scorer on the team, but also moves the ball well, with 26 assists against just 12 turnovers. He's also the team leader in steals (22) and is tied for third in blocked shots, providing the sort of substitute power than every coach dreams of. He's complemented on the front line by Percy Gibson (So., 6-9), who averages 7.4 points and 3.9 rebounds per game in 16 minutes of action, and Anthony Booker (Sr., 6-9), who adds 4.7 and 4.0, respectively.
ISU racks up big scoring totals, some of which is due to its pace of play, but that's not the only story. A senior-dominated squad which won 23 games (including 12 in the league) in 2011-12, the Cyclones are setting themselves up for another tournament run, and beating them anywhere, let alone at home, isn't going to be easy.
Can West Virginia shoot the ball well enough, and score enough, to upset the Cyclones? Simply outrunning ISU may not be the path to victory.
Iowa State has scored at least 80 points in all but one of its wins, and has been held to 71 points or fewer in three of its four losses. Therein lies the key to staying in the game with the run-and-gun Iowans -- get back on defense and force them to run through its offensive sets. ISU wants to create early shot opportunities by moving the ball upcourt quickly and getting shots away before the defense is set, so the key item to watch is West Virginia's transition from offense to defense. How quickly does WVU get back? Are the Mountaineers picking up their opposite numbers quickly, and not allowing them to find open spots in transition?
WVU 8-7, 1-2
ISU 11-4, 1-1
WVU - 84
ISU - 46
The secondary key here is that ISU doesn't just stop with its "primary" fast break. Certainly, it would love to take lay-ups and dunks if it beats WVU down the floor. But that's just the first part of Hoiberg's system. ISU will push the ball to get defenders into the lane, then kick it out to an array of three-point shooters who have the green light to fire at any time. ISU has six players who have made at least 10 threes this year, and as a team hits 36.3% of its tries from distance. Only three players in its nine-man rotation make fewer than 44% of their shots from the field, showing that the Cyclones are taking advantage of their many shot opportunities.
Of course, West Virginia will have to shoot well to pull the upset, but it will also have to rebound on defense to prevent second chances. ISU is going to get more shots that any other WVU foe his year (it's averaging 65 per game) and the Mountaineers can't afford to give up any extras.
That's going to be a tough task, however. WVU hasn't shown any consistency in getting back in transition this year, and rebounding out of the mad scramble that often results from picking up opponents and defending shots on the run is more difficult still. ISU doesn't just chuck it and forget it -- it is grabbing more than nine boards per game than its foes, and snares almost 15 per game on offense. West Virginia's ability to stop the initial onslaught and then rebound will be sorely tested, especially in its most difficult venue of the season to date.
Iowa State head coach Fred Hoiberg is known as "The Mayor" for his lifelong connection to Ames. He attended Ames High School and had a stellar career at Iowa State before departing for a 10-year NBA career. He returned to take the Iowa State job in 2010.
* * *
This is another game in which West Virginia's height at center might not be a big factor. WVU has been unable to parlay size advantages at the position into tactical advantages on the floor. If West Virginia can't use its bigs to score in the post on the offensive end (which would also help to slow ISU's transition game). then it may be forced to go to a smaller lineup that can keep up with the Cyclone running game.
* * *
ISU ranks third nationally in 3-pointers per game (9.5) and has made 10 or more in eight games this year. Those totals have helped propel the Cyclones to a scoring level unmatched by any other D-1 team this year: they are the only squad to tally at least 70 points in every game this season.
* * *
West Virginia does not have any individual players ranked in the top three of any of the Big 12's major statistical categories. Gary Browne (fourth in free throw percentage) is the highest rated Mountaineer.