Marner: Cyclone defense could lead Iowa State to historic season

Iowa State senior Nick Weiler-Babb plays defense during the first half against Kansas on Saturday. The Cyclones won, 77-60.

Aaron Marner

Iowa State isn’t typically known for its defense. The 2018-19 team is doing everything in its power to change that.

Iowa State knocked off No. 5 Kansas, 77-60, at Hilton Coliseum on Saturday. The game was close for about 18 minutes. The Cyclones dominated the second half, especially on the defensive side of the ball.

Kansas — the 24th best offense in the nation, according to KenPom — was held to just 24 made baskets on 56 attempts (42.9 percent) and hit just 30 percent of its 3-pointers.

The craziest part? The Jayhawks were forced into 24 turnovers, leading to 20 points for the Cyclones.

“We showed that we can play with anybody in the country,” said redshirt senior guard Marial Shayok, who led all scorers with 24 points.

This is the best Iowa State defense of the past decade and it’s not particularly close. Previous Iowa State defenses have had strong points, like the 2016-17 team that was quick, experienced and smart. That team — led by seniors Matt Thomas, Monte Morris, Naz Mitrou-Long and Deonte Burton — was small, however.

KenPom currently has Iowa State ranked 23rd in defensive efficiency. You have to go back to the 2004-05 season to find another Iowa State squad that was that strong defensively.

Iowa State has the ability to guard any type of team. Guard-oriented offenses will run into the ridiculous length of Tyrese Haliburton, Talen Horton-Tucker, Nick Weiler-Babb, Marial Shayok and Lindell Wigginton. Wigginton at 6-foot-2 is the only regular guard who is shorter than 6-foot-4.

Against Kansas, the Cyclones switched almost every dribble hand-off and screen at the top of the key, just like they’ve done all year. But against a 19-points-per-game scorer in Kansas’ Dedric Lawson, Iowa State suffocated the post. Lawson finished 5-of-11, but had just 13 points and six turnovers. Kansas’ guards also struggled to get the ball inside for Lawson.

“I thought Dedric was gonna have to get 25 today [to win],” said Kansas coach Bill Self.

The Cyclones fronted Lawson in the post, forcing Kansas’ young backcourt to attempt risky lobs into the paint. While the Cyclones were sometimes slow to rotate behind Lawson, leading to a couple of easy baskets and a foul, it proved tough for Lawson to get anything going.

That’s the strength of this Iowa State team. Few possessions come easy. They have depth at every spot and can switch 1-through-5 in some lineups. They’re experienced, thanks to fifth-year players Shayok and Weiler-Babb, along with fourth-year junior Michael Jacobson in the post.

The last time I saw an Iowa State defense this versatile and active was the very end of the aforementioned 2016-17 season. Iowa State’s best lineup had two fifth-year seniors (Burton and Mitrou-Long), two fourth-year seniors (Thomas and Morris) and a freshman big man, Solomon Young. They switched 1-through-4 and everyone rebounded above their weight class.

This year’s team has that same potential. The rebounding still needs some work, as shown by Kansas’ nine offensive rebounds in the first half, but the potential is clearly there. The freshmen guards, Haliburton and Horton-Tucker, have both made strides since November.

“He’s starting to grow on the defensive end,” said coach Steve Prohm about Haliburton. “He messed up a couple switches and got beat off the bounce a couple times, but he’s got great length. Sometimes he can recover.”

Haliburton already broke last year’s team-high for individual steals with 31. He blocked two shots against Oklahoma State in the first Big 12 game of the season, both of which were perimeter shots. It’s tough to even get a decent shot off against this Cyclone defense.

It worked Saturday as the Jayhawks struggled to shoot from the perimeter and couldn’t pass around Iowa State’s length, but the Jayhawks were also without big man Udoka Azubuike, who has averaged 13.1 points on 75.6 percent shooting since the beginning of last season. He was a late scratch Saturday.

Keeping Lawson from a big game was the key, and Iowa State’s ability to keep star players from big nights will be huge going forward.

If they can turn teams over like they did Saturday, Iowa State could be in for a big year.

“I’d have to look and see exactly why,” Prohm said. “We wanted to double, we wanted to have hands on him and be active. I think we did that.”