Belinson: Analyzing Iowa State’s formula to get back on track

Tyrese Hunter talks with T.J. Otzelberger during the Cyclones’ 59–44 loss to TCU on Jan. 22.

Matt Belinson

Iowa State men’s basketball is in need of answers offensively.

If that wasn’t already clear before the Cyclones managed to only score 44 points in their loss to TCU on Saturday — good for the fewest in the 50-year history of Hilton Coliseum — then the time is definitely now.

It’s not a secret that this team’s defense has carried since T.J. Otzelberger took over the program (6th in the country in KenPom’s adjusted defensive efficiency — allowing 88.4 points per 100 possessions). It’s an identity Otzelberger is more than comfortable living with. He assembled this roster with that purpose first and foremost.

And for the first two months of the season, it all seemed to click.

But after a 12-0 start, and becoming one of the darlings of college basketball, the Cyclones have lost four of their last five games and have hit a wall when it comes to scoring the basketball — and hit it hard.

The Cyclones rank 134th in the country using KenPom adjusted offensive efficiency and are tied at 239th in the country in scoring with Patriot League member Loyola Maryland and Sun Belt member UT Arlington at 68.9 points per game.

Iowa State has shot under 45 percent from the field in league play in four of its seven games.

And if you ask Otzelberger and his players, they’ll offer up no excuses to the inept offense that’s been on display more times than not over the last seven games. They know it’s been bad.

Instead, they’ve got solutions. Or at least, they have the outline of what they think can be the answer.

“We’ve been very clear and direct with our guys about what our formula for winning needs to be and that we can’t deviate from that, regardless of what adversity or challenges we’re having relative to our offense,” Otzelberger told reporters Monday.

Let’s examine what the Cyclones have said is the blueprint to fixing their struggles, and I’ll offer my analysis of if and how this formula can work.

1. Being the aggressor

Otzelberger has been known to rely on intangible details to measure his team’s success in the early stages of his tenure in Ames.

For him, it’s about desire, fight, energy, mental toughness and being relentless. But his calling card has been “aggressiveness.”

And Otzelberger said that piece was non-existent for the Cyclones on Saturday against the Horned Frogs, as the the team let the culmination of the worst offensive showing in Hilton’s history get to them.

Here’s what Otzelberger said it will take for Iowa State to become the aggressor again and how that impacts offense:

“Being the aggressor for us starts with our ball pressure, dictating, turning people over, having a tremendous sense of urgency,” Otzelberger said. “When we’ve been at our best, we’ve been able to do that defensively which has allowed us to generate live ball turnovers and effectively score in that manner.”

“I’m not sure why we didn’t a have a greater sense of urgency on Saturday. It’s something we’ve talked about, we’ve practiced and we’ve worked on.”

To me, being the aggressor is the start toward success.

Otzelberger is right when he says Iowa State has been at its best when it is turning people over and being aggressive up and down the floor. I think that’s a key aspect we haven’t seen in some time for this group.

In its last three losses, Iowa State has not had over four fast break points. That can’t happen with this group.

The Cyclones don’t run consistent-enough half-court offense to not operate in the open court for multiple games. Iowa State has to get back to letting defense create easy scoring chances.

That being said, I don’t think being aggressive with ball pressure is where this group has flat-lined over the last two weeks. That’s something I haven’t seen dip.

What’s changed is a lack of aggressiveness on offense, with minimal plays designed to attack the rim and put pressure near the basket.

A lot has been made about the recent free-throw line disparity between Iowa State and its opponents. But if you really have watched this team, they don’t draw fouls and they don’t attack with the dribble near the rim enough to get to the line at a high rate.

2. Stubbornness

This aspect of Iowa State’s formula intrigued me the most out of anything Otzelberger said Monday.

Here’s what he had to say when asked to describe what it looks like for Iowa State to be stubborn — a word he uses often in describing his team:

“When we turn someone over, we want to score in the open court. I think that’s pretty clear that most teams do. When we’re not able to do that, stubbornness for us then involves we want to run an action. We want to be physical. We want to hit people. We want to screen. We want to be aggressive,” Otzelberger said. “And at that point in time, we either generated a really good shot or we didn’t.”

“So if we didn’t, stubbornness involves getting to the next action. For us offensively, we run multiple actions. We run action into action into action. And stubborn means not breaking away from that unless we get a really, really good shot.”

“Stubborn means staying the course and being willing to score late in the shot clock. We’ve had a lot of games where we’ve been successful doing that.”

“Ultimately, it’s our guys being very stubborn to get the best shot we can every possession.”

I disagree with this approach. The time is now to start something new.

I get Otzelberger has brought a sense of unapologetic work habits to this program, but at some point the rose-colored glasses have to come off.

We saw too many times during last season’ 2-22 disaster an offensive system that basically started operating within the final 10 seconds of the shot clock out of pure confusion and ineptitude.

Iowa State has better scoring options than last season’s roster, and I don’t see the benefit of letting defenses sit and wait for your next move. Big 12 teams have really cranked up their pressure and pursuit of Izaiah Brockington. Texas stopped Brockington from catching the ball in his spots and all-but took him out of the offensive equation.

I know most Big 12 teams are starting to incorporate aspects of the no-middle defense, but Iowa State’s current system of dribble hand-offs and contested jumpers isn’t working. Attack the basket or search for better looks for your big-men.

The Cyclones choosing to remain stubborn and continually attacking defenses the same way possession after possession seems like an odd approach to take given how poorly things have been.

3. “Shots will fall”

That was essentially Otzelberger and his team’s answer to the horrific three-point shooting numbers in conference play.

In Iowa State’s 59-44 loss to TCU, the Cyclones went a whopping 3-26 from distance.

“It’s basketball, you’re going to miss shots. But they’ll fall eventually,” Tre Jackson said Saturday.

The numbers haven’t lined up with Jackson’s optimism.

The Cyclones are shooting 26.8 percent from three in Big 12 play and rank No. 8 out of 10 teams in the Big 12 at 61.9 ppg.

On top of those concerning statistics, Iowa State’s three highest-volume three-point shooters are also the team’s worst since Big 12 play began.

Gabe Kalscheur has 45 attempts and is shooting 28.9 percent in the Cyclones’ seven league games. Tyrese Hunter has put up 24 attempts at a 20.8 percent rate. Caleb Grill rounds out the group with 32 attempts at a cold 25 percent.

“We’ve certainly had stretches, I don’t think it’s a big secret where we’ve had some challenges offensively,” Otzelberger said Saturday after the loss to TCU.

This team’s biggest issue is shot-makers not named Izaiah Brockington. Period.

Outside of Brockington, I’d challenge observers of this team to point out another consistent piece on the roster — someone you know will produce at a high level.

That’s what makes this recent stretch a concern. Every team has a slump, but this theme of Brockington playing Superman while the rest of the scoring is sort of a shrug every night has been consistent. Where’s the second option? I think in an ideal world it’s Kalscheur while Hunter facilitates and helps a little with scoring.

But right now it’s anyone’s guess. And it’s time this team pair its lights-out defense with a competent offense. 

“We probably don’t have the choice to be elite offense and hope the defense comes around,” Otzelberger said Saturday.

I don’t think anyone is asking for elite, but at this point average offense would be a good starting place.