I am fascinated by the idea of an alternate universe where in 2010 Iowa State coach Greg McDermott decides that his teenage son is good enough to play in the Big 12, and recruits him to play at Iowa State. In that alternate world, father and son do not leave Ames to head to Creighton.
In this other world, Doug McDermott breaks into the Cyclone lineup as a freshman, emerges as an All-Conference and All-American player as a sophomore, and goes on to surpass Fred Hoiberg as the most beloved player in Iowa State history. On McDermott's senior night, Hoiberg, first-year general manager of the Minnesota Timberwolves, travels to Ames to watch as McDermott leads the Cyclones to victory over Oklahoma State. While watching, Hoiberg contemplates naming himself the next head coach in Minnesota -- either that or he will bring back Flip Saunders, ha! -- and considers how to build a team after the coming loss of Kevin Love.
In this other universe, I think Cyclones fans are happy. But the world of basketball is assembled rather differently.
Iowa State Basketball Under Fred Hoiberg
Under Fred Hoiberg Iowa State basketball has become known for two things: (a) taking on one-year transfers with great success and (b) scoring points like crazy.
What Iowa State does on offense is amazingly simple, and is a good example of just how effective an offense can be with enough shooters spacing the floor and playing fast. Fancy patterned cuts and screens are not required. The Cyclones get down to business quickly, frequently generating a wide open shot with only one or two passes. The coach stays out of the way, and the players get buckets.
When you watch the Iowa State offense carefully, one of the first things that jumps out is just how well Hoiberg's team spaces the floor. Hoiberg has an NBA background, and spacing is the name of the game in the modern NBA. The Cyclones space the floor like an NBA team, frequently putting shooters in each corner, which stretches the defense along the baseline, forcing weak-side defenders to choose between helping and checking their man.
Let's look at a couple of examples of how the Iowa State offense works. The first example shows the Cyclones running one of the simplest sets in basketball, the spread pick and roll. This basic play is a mainstay in the NBA, most famously run by Steve Nash and the Phoenix Suns.
In the image below, we immediately see the difficulty that this set creates. Iowa State has a shooter in each corner, which pulls helping defenders away from the basket. Additionally, a third shooter stands on the wing opposite of the ball.
In this case, Oklahoma State is defending Iowa State's ball screen using an approach that is currently popular in both the college and pro game. (For a nice review of the different options on pick and roll defense, I highly recommend this SB Nation post, which is both concise and fairly comprehensive.) The defender on the ball is forcing the ball handler away from the screen, while the man defending the screener helps to contain dribble penetration. This tactic goes by a lot of different names, although I am partial to "ice" because it is fun to say and has nothing to do with basketball.
A big part of effectively running the spread pick and roll is to force one or more defenders to help off of their man. You essentially want to get two defenders guarding the same player, leaving someone else open. In this case, the screener cuts to the basket, drawing the weak-side wing defender inside, while two defenders contain the ball. After a couple of dribbles, the result is a wide open three point attempt for a shooter who has is feet set and is stepping into his shot.
Let's take a moment to reflect upon what happened. With two or three dribbles and a single pass, the offense found a wide open high value shot against a strong defense. There wasn't much fussing around, risking a turnover.
Had the Cowboys instead not helped off the eventual three point shooter, the cutter would likely have come open for a chance near the rim. It is too hard for a defender to be in two places at once.
Another way that Iowa State puts stress on the defense is by playing fast. When the Cyclones have a transition opportunity, they generally take it. After rebounding an opponent's missed basket, Hoiberg's men quickly transition from offense to defense, looking to space the floor.
A simple example of how this works is shown below. The ball has been passed ahead on the wing. Three ISU players are running their lanes, with one going to the rim and two spacing around the three point line.
With just a couple of dribbles against a scrambling and out of position defense, the ball handler gets to choose between two wide open three point shooters with their feet set. This is shown in the photo below.
Over the course of a game, Iowa State will generally keep things simple. Hoiberg will mix in set plays when the tempo slows, but the Cyclone offense tends to lean on transition scoring, isolation, and ball screens. No one on the team passes up on an open shot from three.
One of the positive benefits of the way that the Cyclones play is that they seldom attempt mid-range shots. Per Dylan Burkhardt at Shotanalytics.com, more than 90 percent of Iowa State's shot attempts last season were either in the paint or behind the three point line. As someone who believes that the only good jump shot is a
dead one three, I applaud ISU's dedication to this approach.
Ranking the Coaches of the Big 12, as Players
One of the most interesting things about Fred Hoiberg is that he clearly had one of the best playing careers among NCAA D-I coaches. And so that makes this as good of a place as any to attempt to rank the coaches of the Big 12 as basketball players.
To do this, we have to level the playing field; while it might be amusing to consider how much a 63 year old Tubby Smith has left in the tank, that isn't what I am going for.
This is a much better exercise if we try to consider what sort of players these guys were at their peak.
I have to add a disclaimer. I am 38 years old. So the only people on this list that I ever watched play are Fred Hoiberg and Travis Ford, so I will have to rely on the little bit of research I have been able to do. Some readers will likely remember the playing career of Lon Kruger and possibly Bob Huggins. If anyone actually saw Trent Johnson or Tubby Smith play, I would love to hear about it.
But anyway, this is all for fun, so let's get to it.
1. Fred Hoiberg — Iowa State and ten year NBA vet. And he could have played longer if his heart was healthier. While Kruger was before my time, Hoiberg's pro career leads me to believe that he was the better player of the two. In college, Hoiberg finished with 1993 career points (seven shy of 2000), and averaged 19.9 PPG as a senior. The Mayor then spent ten years in the NBA, hitting 39.6 percent of his threes.
2. Lon Kruger — Kansas State. Kruger is the only player on this list who challenges Hoiberg for the top spot. Kruger was the Big 8 player of the year in both 1973 and 1974, and averaged 17.6 points per game as a senior.
College Basketball Players
The next group of players all played college hoops.
3. Travis Ford — Kentucky. Ford was an undersized sharp-shooter who was among the most important players on Rick Pitino’s first really good UK teams. Ford was a long range bomber who as a junior shot a ridiculous 101-191 on three point attempts, keeping defenses honest against Jamal Mashburn. Maybe Ford could have had Hoiberg’s career if only he had been 8 inches taller.
4. Bob Huggins — West Virginia. Huggins was a point guard at West Virginia who as a senior averaged 13.2 PPG and led his team in assists.
5. Trent Johnson — Boise State. Johnson averaged 13 PPG for Boise State his senior year, earning second team all-conference honors.
6. Tubby Smith — High Point. Smith is among the better players in High Point history. He was an All-Conference player at High Point in the early 1970s, scoring more than 1500 points during his college career. I am really not sure how to rank Smith relative to these other players, as High Point played a lower level of competition. He may be a spot too high, or one or two spots too low.
7. Bill Self — Oklahoma State. Self was good enough to letter at a Big Eight school, earning playing time all four years of his college career. Self played 700 minutes his senior year and averaging 8 PPG.
8. Rick Barnes — Lenoir-Rhyne. It is quite hard to find any sort of information on Rick Barnes' playing career. Even his extremely wordy bio at Texassports.com (over 7000 words long) says only this:
He was a standout basketball player at Hickory High, where he graduated in 1973. Barnes moved on to Lenoir-Rhyne College (Hickory, N.C.), where he lettered three years and won the Captain’s Award for Leadership as a junior and senior.
Given that, I think I have him ranked appropriately.
9a. Bruce Weber — I haven't found any mention that Bruce Weber played college ball.
9b. Scott Drew — As far as I can tell, Drew never even played high school varsity basketball, which is pretty unusual for a D-I coach, particularly when we consider that he comes from a basketball family. He was a student manager at Butler, and then after graduating joined his dad’s staff at Valparasio. His brother (Bryce) was a much better player.
The Iowa State Roster
Fred Hoiberg's program has reached a point where success is assumed. Even after losing DeAndre Kane and Big 12 Player of the Year Melvin Ejim, Iowa State is still ranked No. 14 in the preseason USA Today Coaches Poll.
And this ranking is justified. Georges Niang returns for his junior season, which reminds Big 12 coaches that they still have to deal with him for two more full years. Niang's game is so odd that it reminds you of almost no one. Perhaps the closest recent comparison is Draymond Green, who played at Michigan State and now is on the Golden State Warriors. Still, this comparison isn't perfect, as Niang is better working off the dribble, while Green was and is a better rebounder.
Niang's partner in crime this season will be graduate transfer Bryce Dejean-Jones. Dejean-Jones started his career at USC, and then transferred to UNLV after his freshman year. Now he has come to Ames, looking to be the next successful one-year player at Iowa State. He is a big and physical guard who plays with the ball. While his efficiency numbers were mediocre at UNLV -- he registered a true shooting percentage of 50.8 percent last season -- the same could have been said about DeAndre Kane prior to his time at Iowa State.
Last year 40 percent of Dejean-Jones' shots were logged as two point jump shots, per hoop-math.com. In Hoiberg's offense, we can expect Dejean-Jones to take fewer mid-range attempts. It won't surprise me at all if he has a year similar to the one Kane had last season, playing a similar role as a big and physical guard who overpowers smaller defenders going to the basket or from the low post.
6-6 forward Dustin Hogue and three point bombers Naz Long and Matt Thomas also return from last season's squad. Long and Thomas provide the critical floor-spacing that makes the Cyclone attack work, while Hogue does a lot of the dirty work inside, while also doubling as an efficient finisher at the basket.
There are two other transfers of note for Iowa State. 6-9 Marquette transfer and two-time JuCo All-American Jameel McKay, who will be eligible to play on Dec. 20, will help the Cyclones inside. He hasn't yet played in a D-I game, but his junior college highlights make it look like he will be a handful for Big 12 defenders. As a sophomore he averaged 18 PPG and 11 RPG for Indian Hills Community College.
The final transfer of note is Abdel Nader, who will be eligible to play after sitting out last season. Nader was the primary offensive option on two horrible Northern Illinois teams. During his sophomore year, he took an estimated 42 percent of his team's shots while on the floor, which was the highest rate in the nation per kenpom.com. He did this while posting an effective field goal percentage of less than 39 percent. Hoiberg has a knack for getting more efficient results out of his transfers then they registered prior to arriving in Ames, which makes me curious about what the future holds for Nader.
One more bit of roster fun: Iowa State also recruited 7-1 Georgios Tsalmpouris, from Katerini, Greece, who looks like he may be a player, although it may take a few seasons.
Either Tsalmpouris or 6-8 senior Daniel Edozie will see action early in the season while Hoiberg waits for McKay to become eligible.
Along with Kansas, Texas, Oklahoma, and Kansas State, the Cyclones are good candidates to challenge for the Big 12 title. Niang and Dejean-Jones will be difficult match-ups for the rest of the league, while McKay may possibly emerge as another top newcomer to the league.
While the Iowa State offense will surely be strong, it will be the performance of the defense that will define the Cylcones' ceiling. Hoiberg coaches defense well, focusing on limiting penetration and controlling the defensive glass, but he again goes into the season lacking an obvious rim protector.
Still, Iowa State will be among the best in the Big 12, and their games will likely again be among the most entertaining to watch.