Iowa State’s Solomon Young fights for the ball during a game against the South Dakota State Jackrabbits at Hilton Coliseum in Ames, Wednesday, Dec. 2, 2020.
AMES — Stop me if you’ve heard this one before, but the Cyclones are searching for an identity.
It was a problem that plagued the Iowa State men’s basketball program all the way through last season’s 12-20 run and was especially the case once Tyrese Haliburton was gone for the year with an injury. They were constantly searching for something, anything, that they could fall back on as being their core identity.
That search continues through the first two games of the 2020-21 season, the second of those contests being a 71-68 loss to South Dakota State on Wednesday at Hilton Coliseum.
Not knowing what this team really does well at this point and what it can fall back on when times get tough is somewhat understandable when you consider the number of new faces on Steve Prohm’s team. A disjointed preseason preparation period due to the COVID-19 pandemic is a real thing. But there are elements of this problem that are becoming concerning when you consider just how long it has taken to, first, find that thing you want your identity to be and, second, establish it to the point where it is rock solid and a defining pillar of your team, season and program.
As it stands today, the Cyclones do not have an identity and they do not seem to be much closer to finding it than they were prior to this game and Sunday’s win over Arkansas-Pine Bluff being played.
“I think we’ve got to find our identity,” Prohm said after the loss to the Jackrabbits. “We’ve got to find it first on the defensive end and then on the offensive end of understanding how to play, concepts, from that standpoint. I knew this game was going to be tough tonight.”
For the second straight game, the Cyclones found themselves trying to dig out of an early hole dug almost as much by themselves as their opponent. Energy was lacking. The defense was constantly scrambling and the offense lacked direction as South Dakota State jumped out to an early 12-5 lead before the first media break and built that advantage to as much as 14 points before the first half horn sounded.
Iowa State went inside to Solomon Young on each of its first two possessions, both ending with hook shots from Solo and one of which finding the bottom of the net. Prohm has made clear his desire to work a lot of the offense through the post this season after the way Young finished his junior campaign and that is one possible solution to the identity crisis.
The problem is after that second possession, eight of the Cyclones’ next nine shots came from behind the 3-point line and only one of them connected. It was one of four 3-pointers Iowa State made in the entire game.
Young’s third shot in the paint came more than eight minutes after his second. During those minutes in between, the Cyclones scored just seven points as the Jackrabbits’ lead grew to 10 points.
The next shot from the post came with just short of nine minutes remaining in the first half and then there was not another attempt in the half.
Iowa State finished the half 2-of-14 from behind the 3-point line and trailed by 12 points heading into the locker room.
“There was a lot of things coming into the game planning on doing, but we really wanted to establish the post,” Prohm said. “We thought we had an advantage to go inside there. I thought we got away from it really early. Some threes are good. They were open threes. Some are just too quick or just not good shots.”
Making Young the focal point of your offense is not necessarily crazy for this Iowa State team when you consider he averaged 13 points per game after Haliburton’s injury last season and played efficiently with his back to the basket. Young may not be a traditional post scorer in the mold of Iowa’s national player of the year candidate Luka Garza, but he’s certainly good enough to draw attention from defenses and ease the pressure on Iowa State’s guards.
The problem with this idea though is most centers are not going to be going coast-to-coast off rebounds or bringing the ball across half court in most situations.
Unfortunately for Iowa State, Georges Niang will not be walking through that door unless he’s wearing a Utah Jazz shirt and planning to cheer the team on from the stands.
Post players need someone to throw them the ball after they have worked to get position. That requires commitment from the Cyclones’ backcourt to make getting Young, or even junior center George Conditt, the ball on the block when the opportunity arises and the offense calls for it.
During the first half, that commitment simply was not there.
It changed some during the second half as Young scored 16 of his team-high 24 points after the halftime break (on 13 shots), but by that time the Cyclones were still in a position where they needed to figure out a way to dig out of the hole from the first half. Doing that with shots from the block every few possessions will not overtake a lead unless you’re locked into getting stops on the defensive end.
“We’ve got to establish the post,” Prohm said. “Everything we do, all of our ball-screen stuff, is really just to try to get it back to get it inside, to throw it in there. Obviously, we didn’t shoot the three that well tonight. We’re 4-23, but half of those were probably tough ones. Maybe not half but at least a third and then some you’ve got to make in a game like this when you’re trying to get yourself kick-started and going…
“We have got to establish the post. That was the number one game plan. Our first three actions were going inside tonight when we weren’t playing out of our flow game. Our flow game ends up going inside. We threw it in the first position, we missed a jump hook and then it became perimeter happy. That’s part of all these guys’ first time in it. When we do the right things offensively, it’s been proven we can be very, very efficient.”
This is again where I have to bring up Niang and present one of the questions on my mind with this strategy moving forward. Niang was one of the best players this school has ever seen, a college basketball unicorn in nearly everything he did, and he was surrounded by a group of guys who knew when the going got tough, No. 31 was the one getting the basketball.
Hell, everybody in the gym or watching on TV knew that was the case.
The result was offensive efficiency that stacked up with the best college basketball had to offer and exciting games, wins and teams that will live in Cyclone lore forever.
Solomon Young is not Georges Niang just like Rasir Bolton is not Monte Morris or Jalen Coleman-Lands is not Naz Mitrou-Long or Javan Johnson is not Deonte Burton or Tyler Harris is not Matt Thomas and so on.
Playing this way requires the guys around the big man to not only get him the basketball, but to do their job and put the ball in the basket once the defense keys his way and they’re left standing around the perimeter for open opportunities.
This style of play will also require a level of buy in on the defensive end that we simply have not seen from Iowa State, not only in the first two games of this season, but during all of last year, parts of the 2018-19 season or the majority of the year before that.
The Cyclones have not shown a consistent ability to guard the ball effectively off the dribble, to be disciplined in their rotations during scramble situations or in closing out on shooters once compromised and forced to close from the inside out.
This fact reared its ugly head again against South Dakota State as the Jackrabbits’ spread out, ball movement based style left Iowa State in numerous of defensive scrambles and resulted in more than a fair share of wide open shots from the perimeter and more or less uncontested shots near the rim.
“It’s really understanding the scouting report. This was the first really, really detailed scout from a standpoint of where we had a chance to watch them a lot in South Dakota,” Prohm said. “Understanding how we wanted to guard different guys, firing the post. You look at when guards are running into the post, those were supposed to be fires, we’re supposed to trap that, so now we can show it when we’re in film, but we’ve got to implement it. We’ve got to understand it and now we’ve got to go do it. The game doesn’t stop. We can’t take timeout, timeout. You’ve got to do it on the fly. You’ve got to adjust on the fly. We’ve got a lot of new guys trying to do it for the first time. We’ve got to keep growing from that. I’ve got to do a better job with them, of course.”
Much like on the offensive end, the Cyclones seemed more engaged defensively during the second half and did a considerably better job of keeping the Jackrabbits contained than they did during the first half, even holding them to several stretches of two-plus minutes without scoring.
But still, they were not able to do enough out of their offensive improvement to close the gap because, one, expecting Young to suddenly be an elite, put the team on his back post scorer is probably unfair and, two, it requires someone else to knock down an open shot when the situation presents itself.
Iowa State had several opportunities to tie this game, but they were never able to do that nor take a lead because every time they would get close there would either be a missed open shot off of a kick-out, an ill-advised shot selection or a turnover that would allow SDSU to break their scoreless streak and rebuild its lead.
Sure, not being able to execute this at a high enough level can be chalked up to inexperience or the weird preseason, but there comes a point when someone just has to make the plays they were recruited to make.
While a solid handful of these guys on Iowa State’s roster might be new to this particular program, each of the five starters have all played three or more years of college basketball. Your backup center, who played only three minutes in the second half, is in his third season of playing at the collegiate level.
The only ones with any sort of excuse of not knowing how to adjust on the fly at a collegiate pace or not being locked into a college scouting report would be the program’s four freshmen, but none of them played substantial enough minutes on Wednesday to make that big of an impact on this game anyway.
In the second half of this game, Rasir Bolton played 20 minutes, Jalen Coleman-Lands played 18 and Javan Johnson and Tyler Harris each played 14. Bolton and Harris are both true juniors. Johnson is a redshirt junior. Coleman-Lands is a sixth-year senior. It is not that quartet’s first rodeo of playing college basketball and that makes the idea of them not being able to execute a scouting report or stay disciplined to a gameplan against a Summit League opponent, albeit a good one, concerning to me.
That group went 9-of-18 from the field and 2-of-9 from 3-point range during the second half and both made 3-pointers came from Coleman-Lands right at the end when that was really all the Cyclones were looking for in order to make one last run at tying the game.
When you look at why Iowa State lost this game, an inability to make shots off of their initial action and the targeted game plan is the biggest thing you can point towards. This is not meant to call out particular players or to point a finger at them as being the reason the team lost but simply stating the facts based on what the coach said the game plan was going into the game.
There is still room for Young to grow on the glass, but he largely held up his end of the bargain in being efficient on the block as the offense’s centerpiece.
“We’re still growing,” Prohm said. “We need to be put in these situations. The late game situations, the offensive execution and just keep growing from there. Nobody’s finger pointing one or two games in nor should they be 20 games in. We’ve got to win each day. You’ve got to stay the course. You’ve got to grow and get better because that’s the only way you can succeed at this level, or any level, doesn’t matter what level. You take it a day at a time and you work.”
It would be hard to call the first test for the Cyclones’ targeted identity for the 2020-21 season a complete failure when you consider them getting themselves back into the game in the second half by being dedicated to sticking with it.
The next thing will be making sure to stick to it for a full 40 minutes and not just once you’ve fallen behind at halftime and have to figure out a way to get the game back under your control.
After that, you work to become the best you possibly can in that identity and hope that it works out for the best. This particular identity has worked before for Iowa State during Prohm’s tenure, but whether or not it will for this year’s Cyclones is to be decided.
Unfortunate as it is, Georges Niang is not walking through that door.
But, man, if he did, it would be identity crisis averted.