Beseiged on all sides; a examination of Iowa State’s offensive versatility

Max Dible

The snow has all but vanished, yet the unseasonably warm sun isn’t fooling anyone. It’s the dead of winter in Ames, which means only one thing to the ISU basketball community.

Kansas is coming.

The date is Jan. 17, 2015, and a new year has ushered in a fresh opportunity for retribution. No. 11 Iowa State stands 2-1 in Big 12 play. No. 9 Kansas, the only team in two years to venture into the jaws of Hilton and emerge a victor, remains unblemished against conference competition.

For two years in a row, the Cyclones have been forced to bear witness as their team’s otherwise spotless home-court record was tarnished by a splattering of Jayhawk blue and white. But this year, the Cyclones are hungry—and they have feasting on their minds.

“In [Coach] Hoiberg’s offense, man, there’s so much room to eat,” Naz Long said.

The second course

The game clock reads 9:35. The Cyclones lead a tight contest 55-53, but they’re about to create a little room on their collective plate—family style.

9:16- Point guard Monte Morris tosses a lob to his roommate Jameel McKay, who scrapes the sky to finish an alley-oop that brings all of Hilton to its feet. 57-53.

8:53- Morris nabs a defensive rebound and pushes the pace, finding Bryce Dejean-Jones in transition for a layup. 59-53.

8:28- Morris’ first lob pass to McKay worked so well he decides to try it again, only this time from half court after receiving an in-bounds pass. The dunk counts for two points, but the shift in momentum is unquantifiable. 61-55.

8:05- McKay makes another bucket at the rim, assisted by—who else—Morris. 63-55.

7:30- Iowa State’s leading scorer, Georges Niang, bites off a piece of the action as he buries a long-range jumper. 66-55.

6:47- Niang passes up a scoring chance, serving the ball up to sharp-shooter Naz Long, who drills a 3-pointer of his own. 69-57.

6:28- Long drops a cherry on top of a 16-4 ISU run that occurs in fewer than three minutes, finishing a layup at the hoop. 71-57.

Game over? Not officially. Game out of reach? Absolutely.

Kansas continues to fight, cutting the lead to four, but simply does not have the wherewithal to climb all the way back. Six Cyclones finish the game in double figures, but no one should be surprised. It’s how Iowa State plays. It’s how Iowa State wins.

“It just shows that we got a bunch of unselfish dudes,” Long said. “To have six guys averaging double figures—that’s unheard of. To be the only team in the country to do that—that’s a blessing.”

An embarrassment of riches

When Iowa State wrapped up its season with a win against Texas Christian, it became official. The Cyclones own the ninth most potent offense in the nation, but hold the undisputed mantle of the most balanced offensive attack the country has to offer.

Niang leads the way for Iowa State, pouring in 15.2 points per game. Morris is second at 11.5, while Dejean-Jones and McKay put up 11.4 and 11.3, respectively. Long drops in 10.6 points per contest and Dustin Hogue rounds out the group, scoring 10.1 per outing.

“When you look down the line, teams usually only have two or three guys averaging double figures and we have guys coming off the bench averaging double figures,” Niang said. “So I think it’s big for us and it just shows the brand of basketball that we’re playing.”

The first step to achieving success in an offense that encourages sharing the ball, while at the same time encourages volume shooting, is to bury the egos—preferably under a massive pile of wins.

“[There are] no egos really,” Morris said. “I think we had great meetings and we established all that. If one person eats or one person gets scored on, it’s everybody doing it, so we’re all on one page.”

Guess who?

Morris added that he believes the Cyclones’ offensive versatility is their greatest strength headed into the postseason. When one or two ISU players have an off night, even if those two players are leading scorers Niang and Morris himself, Iowa State is far from doomed.

Abdel Nader led the team in scoring at both Iowa and West Virginia—Iowa State’s first two road victories of the season—netting 19 points on both nights.

Nader filled in for McKay and Dejean-Jones, who both missed the game at Carver-Hawkeye arena, helping to build and maintain a lead despite Niang starting the evening 1-of-9 from the floor. Nader then put up arguably his best showing of the year at West Virginia, bolstering a foul-ridden ISU team to a two-point win it most certainly would not have achieved without him.

Matt Thomas, or the “Ice Man” as the ISU faithful know him, was ice cold for months before dropping 17 on Texas to help hold off the Longhorns and propel Iowa State to its only pair of consecutive road victories on the season.

And Thomas and Nader aren’t even in the group of Cyclones averaging double figures.

Hogue lit up Oklahoma State to the tune of 17 second-half points in Iowa State’s first conference matchup of the year, leading the Cyclones to another two-point victory. During the final game of Big 12 play, Dejean-Jones tallied 15 points on only three shots from the field at TCU.

“On this team, it could be anybody on any given night,” Long said. “Literally. One through 15.”

Most recently, it’s been McKay stepping up on the offensive end. The redshirt transfer has averaged more than 14 points per game since entering the starting lineup on Feb. 7 against Texas Tech. During his last few appearances, the junior forward has displayed a post game in half court sets that was previously unrecognized as a viable part of his offensive arsenal.

“He’s been kind of labeled, I guess, as just an energy guy—a glue guy that can protect the rim. He doesn’t get a lot of credit for his offense,” said ISU coach Fred Hoiberg of McKay’s game. “He’s more than just a guy who catches lobs and runs the floor. He’s a guy that can definitely score with his back to the basket.”

A threat within a threat

The evolution of McKay the offender is an example of versatility within versatility. Not only do six Cyclones put up 10-plus points per night; they can do it in a variety of ways.

First and foremost, Iowa State wants to push pace. Per, Iowa State’s adjusted tempo rating is 70.6, which ranks seventh nationally.

Adjusted tempo rating divides possessions by minutes and is then adjusted to opponents based on their preferred pace, among other factors. Hence, the Cyclones create more possessions by playing a faster game than nearly every other team, averaging 14.5 seconds per offensive possession—the quickest mark in the country.

The transition game Hoiberg demands helps to produce high percentage shots close to the bucket. When the Cyclones aren’t getting easy baskets or free-throw opportunities out of the fast break, they waste little effort on mid-range jump shots, opting instead for the higher payoff of 3-point attempts.

Four Cyclones—Morris, Long, Hogue and Niang—shoot better than 38 percent from behind the arc. Every one of them, save for Morris, actually shoots better than 40 percent from deep.

Shot selection has helped the Cyclones amass an effective field goal percentage of 55.4 percent on the year, which ranks 14th among collegiate programs and helps to beef up Iowa State’s offensive production to 79.3 points per game.

In the half court, Hoiberg prefers to employ an NBA-style of offense heavily reliant on high pick-and-rolls and isolation plays to take advantage of his players’ individual versatility. Specifically, Hoiberg tries to capitalize on the uncommon ability of Niang, his 6-foot-8-inch power forward, who possesses one of the craftiest dribble-drive games in the NCAA.

Against TCU on March 7, Iowa State scored 89 points. 42 points came in the paint, 27 were bombed in from behind the 3-point line on better than 60 percent shooting from deep, and 20 were netted at the free-throw line.

Postseason Implications

The measured and precise ISU attack on TCU adds up to more than just an 89-point evening. Its implications equal nightmares for potential postseason opponents. After all, no defense can stop everything—and in a win-or-go-home scenario, the pressure intensifies while windows of preparation diminish.

“You only get probably two or three days at the most in the tournament to prepare for someone, and [opponents] have to prepare to stop six to seven guys in a matter of 48 hours. That’s tough,” Morris said. “It’s a good advantage. Instead of playing a team like Oklahoma State, where you have two guys that do all the work—they’re an easier scout. If you’ve got six guys doing that, it’s big time.”

The explosive nature of not only Iowa State’s six double-digit scorers, but its entire eight-man rotation is not an element that can be ignored either. During the Cyclones’ final two games, they have started slowly but finished in a fashion few teams are capable of.

Iowa State poured in 59 points in the second half against Oklahoma, mounting a 22-0 run at one point against a team that has been ranked in the AP’s top 25 poll every week this season except for one. The Cyclones followed up that effort with a season-high 63 points in the final 20 minutes of their regular season schedule at TCU.

Both instances exemplify a phenomenon that is relatively unpredictable. The only guarantee is that given enough opportunity, a team-wide ISU heat-check is bound to emerge. And it can start from anywhere on the court, with any Cyclone serving as its catalyst.

“Everybody was quiet in the first half at TCU, then Monte and Georges just exploded out of nowhere and everyone started feeding off their vibe,” Long said. “That can happen on any given night. We’re a volcano waiting to erupt. That’s our team right there.”