Men’s basketball: Young Cyclones focusing on defense

ISU Basketball’s Freshmen Tyrese Haliburton, Zion Griffin, George Conditt IV, and Talen Horton-Tucker (left to right) at the 2018 ISU Basketball Media Day.

Aaron Marner

When Iowa State takes the court next month to tip off the 2018-19 season, the lineup will look a lot different than it did when the Cyclones left the floor at the Sprint Center in Kansas City, Missouri, to end last season.

Eight players appeared in that game for coach Steve Prohm, and four of them are off the roster now.

That might not be a bad thing for Iowa State.

The Cyclones finished dead last in the Big 12 a season ago, going 13-18 overall and 4-14 in conference play.

Putting the past behind them shouldn’t be too tough — most of the roster wasn’t playing in those games last season. Six of the 12 eligible scholarship players this season didn’t play a regular season minute for the Cyclones a year ago.

Starting anew, however, brings plenty of challenges. While Prohm likes the offensive talent on the roster, the defense needs work after finishing 143rd in defensive efficiency a season ago, according to KenPom.

“I think that’s part of the process,” said assistant coach Daniyal Robinson. “We have a lot of guys coming back but we have a lot of new faces, like Mike [Jacobson] and Marial [Shayok] They practiced last year but it’s different when we have to count on them.

“I think we have some versatility defensively that we didn’t have last year and I think we have an opportunity this year to get better each month. Last year, we were limited by injuries… so we kind of peaked and that was it.”

Those injuries also dealt a blow in practice. Iowa State rarely practiced with a full team last year, often running 3-on-3 drills or breaking into position groups. With just 12 players on the roster, Iowa State couldn’t handle injuries last season.

Now, with four freshmen and two transfers eligible after sitting out a year, being able to practice 5-on-5 has been critical.

“This year having five and being able to go and have confidence — we’ve got 10 guys or more that actually compete for a spot — it’s good,” said senior guard Nick Weiler-Babb.

Defensively, Prohm has talked about the importance of being able to switch on ball screens. The majority of Big 12 offenses are led by perimeter scorers, whether they’re guards — like Kansas’ Lagerald Vick — or forwards, like Kansas State’s Dean Wade (who stands at 6-foot-10 but hit 44 percent of his 3-pointers last season).

To combat that, having tall, athletic wings can make or break a defense. Talen Horton-Tucker, Zion Griffin, Tyrese Haliburton and Shayok are all new additions to the team this season and all four are perimeter players at 6-foot-4 or above. However, that means mixing and matching players who could be in a role they’re not used to playing.

“We don’t necessarily play true position basketball,” Haliburton said. “When we play small it’s really just four guards out and whoever gets the rebound plays the one, really. I don’t really think too much about positions and things like that.”

Playing “small ball” with four guards and just one forward — as opposed to a more traditional two-guard or three-guard lineup — could change lineups drastically for Iowa State. It would allow more minutes for some of the newcomers while also forcing other teams to adapt to what the Cyclones are doing.

Prohm said the freshmen will earn minutes by playing defense. Having positional versatility could be the difference between fighting for a starting spot and spending 40 minutes on the bench.

“It’s gonna be hard to guard us if we go small,” Horton-Tucker said. “It’s gonna be crazy. Four guards is very versatile offensively.”