Contact CU Independent Managing Editor Tommy Wood at Thomas.firstname.lastname@example.org.
As Boulder’s first bit of fall snow melted, Colorado head coach Tad Boyle signed two recruits and joined his team on the court to prepare for their season opener in Sioux Falls, South Dakota.
After practice, Boyle was light but focused, with his sights set on the daunting task that awaits the Buffs in the Black Hills on Friday afternoon:
How, oh how, do you stop the No. 7 Iowa State Cyclones?
“I’m not gonna give you our gameplan,” Boyle chuckled. “But that’s a good question, and if you are looking for things to do in Iowa and come visit one of our games, you might find out.”
There may not be an answer. The Cyclones are probably the best team Colorado will play all year. They’re outrageously talented, devastatingly efficient and battle-tested.
Iowa State returns four starters, including three seniors. The Cyclones’ big three — guard Monte Morris and forwards Georges Niang and Jameel McKay — may be the best trio in the country.
All three are great in their own right, but their skills mesh perfectly in the Cyclones’ system. Morris is the best pass-first point guard in the country. He set an NCAA record with a 4.79 assist-to-turnover ratio as a freshman, and he led the nation last year with a 4.63 rate. He also shoots 40 percent from deep.
McKay is the ostensible center in Iowa State’s small lineup. He’s only 6-foot-9, but he’s a great rim protector, with a 94.6 defensive rating and 2.4 blocks per game. Few college bigs set screens as well as he does, and his bouncy athleticism makes him a killer roller to the rim.
Everything the Cyclones do runs through Niang, though. He’s the most versatile big in the country and it’s not even close. Last season, he scored 15.3 points, grabbed 5.4 rebounds and dished 3.4 assists per game. He shot 46 percent from the field and 40 percent from deep.
Niang can do everything that you want a big to do in 2015. He’s a deadly shooter from downtown, he can roll to the rim, he can post up, he can handle the ball and pass, and he blends these skills into one deadly package.
“They put him in ball screen and drag situations, whether it’s in transition or the half-court,” Boyle said. “You better be ready to handle it, because he is a guy who can roll, who can post, who can pop and shoot the three, and he can really make plays. He can catch the ball 20 feet from the basket and back you down and find open players. He’s a legitimate player.”
Niang, McKay and Morris flourish in Iowa State’s straight-outta-the-NBA offense. Former coach Fred Hoiberg installed a system predicated on spacing, tempo and movement. It carried Iowa State to the Sweet 16 two years ago; last year, it finished 11th in the country in offensive efficiency and 17th in pace, and was perhaps the most fun power-conference team to watch.
Hoiberg coaches the Chicago Bulls now, but his replacement, Steve Prohm, should keep the machine running. Prohm comes from Murray State, where he won 78 percent of his games, two Ohio Valley Conference championships and two OVC coach of the year awards.
“I just put myself in Steve Prohm’s position,” Boyle said. “If I come in there, and inherit a team like he’s inherited, I’m not gonna change a whole lot. Those kids had a lot of success last year playing the way they played.”
That means the Cyclones will take a lot of threes. Last year, 36 percent of their shots came from downtown, and they hit them at the same clip. That’ll be problematic for a Colorado team that allowed opponents to bury 35 percent of their triples last year.
Iowa State’s offense is deadliest early in the shot clock, and especially in transition. The Cyclones are masters of catching opponents off balance, getting to the rim, and kicking out for an open three or to start one of those ping-ping-ping sequences of quick passes that kill inattentive teams.
This play, “Double Drag,” could give the Buffs fits. It plays to the specific talents of Morris, McKay and Niang, and provides Iowa State with almost limitless options:
Here, Morris brings the ball up the court in transition and dribbles to the right wing, where he gets a double screen from Niang and McKay. Niang pops for a three and McKay rolls to the rim. Morris gets an easy layup on this play, but depending on the defense he could also have thrown McKay an alley-oop, kicked to Niang for a triple, or hit a shooter in a corner.
Iowa State’s offense is a hydra, and no matter which options Colorado takes away, the Cyclones will have a counter. Check out this “Pistol” set, where Niang buries an open three:
Morris bring the ball up the the wing again, but this time he gives it to Naz Long on a dribble handoff. Long gets a screen from Niang, whose man sinks too far off and pays for it. Iowa State will also run a version of this where Morris passes ahead to Long, then gets the ball back on a dribble handoff and drives along the baseline to find a shooter in the opposite corner.
Colorado must be quick and decisive on defense if it’s to have a chance. The Buffs can’t afford to get lost in transition and leave a shooter open. They’ll probably switch most off-ball screens to prevent open threes, but that strategy could also leave Colorado with a guard matched up on Niang.
“For us, defensively, it’s gonna be a committee-type thing,” Boyle said. “But he’s a terrific player. It’s gonna be a great challenge for all of our bigs. If a guard finds him in transition, they’re gonna have to guard him. He’s a handful.”
Boyle faces an interesting lineup dilemma here; he could stick with Colorado’s traditional two-big lineup of Josh Scott and Wes Gordon, or he could go small to match Iowa State’s quickness. Scott and Gordon have a size advantage over Niang and McKay, and they should dominate the glass, especially given how much Niang plays on the perimeter.
But if one of them is guarding Niang so far from the basket, they’ll be out of rebounding position and unable to protect the rim. Boyle dislikes small ball, but don’t be surprised if the Buffs play a lineup featuring one big with the wing trio of Josh Fortune, George King and Tre’Shaun Fletcher.
Colorado’s best chance might be if Iowa State simply misses its open looks, like the Cyclones did in their shocking upset loss to UAB in the first round of last season’s NCAA Tournament; in that game, they hit just 26 percent from deep.
“Look, we’re going there to beat Iowa State,” Boyle said. “If we’re successful in that, we can’t think we’ve won a national championship. We’re still gonna learn. It’ll tell us right away what our weaknesses are and what our strengths are.”
Win or lose, the Buffs will get a taste of a team that’s been where they want to go. There may not be an answer to the question, “How does Colorado stop Iowa State?” But maybe the Buffs will start to piece together the answer to a more important question: “How do we get to that level?”