Abdel Nader

Monte Morris
Associated Press

Defensive progress will determine No. 4 Iowa State’s ceiling

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Even with the coaching change from Fred Hoiberg to Steve Prohm, No. 4 Iowa State remains one of the nation’s best offensive teams. Given their skills on that end of the floor many teams find it tough to go score for score with the Cyclones, and that’s what happened to Illinois in Iowa State’s 84-73 win in the Emerald Coast Classic title game.

Georges Niang scored 23 points and grabbed eight rebounds, with Monté Morris adding 20, nine rebounds and six assists and Abdel Nader 18 points as the Cyclones moved to 5-0 on the season. The three-pointers weren’t falling in the second half, as Iowa State shot 0-f0r-12, but they shot 19-for-24 inside of the arc to pull away from a team that lost big man Mike Thorne Jr. late in the first half to a left knee injury.

Illinois’ loss of size in the paint opened things up offensively for Iowa State, and the Cyclones took advantage. But where this group grabbed control of the game was on the defensive end of the floor, and that will be the key for a team with Big 12 and national title aspirations.

Nader took on the responsibility of defending Illinois’ Malcolm Hill (20 points) in the second half and did a solid job of keeping the junior wing in check, with that serving as the spark to a 12-2 run that put the game away. There’s no denying that the Cyclones can put points on the board; most of the talent from last season is back and the productivity on that end of the floor hasn’t changed as a result. Niang’s one of the nation’s best forwards, and both Morris (who now ranks among the country’s best point guards) and Nader have taken significant strides in their respective games.

Iowa State will add Deonte Burton in December, giving them another option to call upon. Front court depth is a bit of a concern, as Iowa State can ill afford to lose a Niang or Jameel McKay, but there’s enough on the roster to compensate for that and force mismatches in other areas.

But the biggest question for this group is how effective they can become at stringing together stops. Illinois certainly had its moments in both halves Saturday night, but Iowa State also showed during the game’s decisive stretch that they can step up defensively. The key now is to do so consistently, and if that occurs the Cyclones can be a threat both within the Big 12 and nationally.

Offensive discipline will be key for No. 13 Iowa State next week – and beyond

Iowa State wins another Big 12 tourney crown (Getty Images)
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source: Getty Images
Iowa State wins another Big 12 tourney crown (Getty Images)

Saturday night No. 13 Iowa State won its second consecutive Big 12 tournament title, beating No. 9 Kansas 70-66, but for the second time in three games the Cyclones needed a second-half surge to earn the victory.

Thursday night, Iowa State turned in one of its poorer halves of the season in their quarterfinal matchup against Texas. The Cyclones struggled with ball and player movement on the offensive end of the floor for much of the first half, with a late run making the halftime deficit a more manageable nine points.

Of course the Cyclones managed to come back, winning by two on a Monté Morris jumper in the final seconds, but Fred Hoiberg’s team was “playing with fire” in falling behind by as much as they did. Iowa State had the same problem in the first half against the Jayhawks, as they were far too stagnant offensively and the lack of ball and player movement had a significant impact on their productivity.

The Cyclones shot 10-for-29 from the field (1-for-11 3PT), and they trailed by 14 despite scoring 16 points in the paint. That turned around in the second half, as Iowa State shot 16-for-31 from the field and scored 31 points in the paint. Given the number of shooters they have on the floor, there are times when Iowa State falls in love with the perimeter shot and essentially bails out the defense.

That didn’t occur in the second half Saturday, and the result was Iowa State being able to take advantage of a Kansas front court that is without Cliff Alexander and despite his playing Perry Ellis doesn’t look to be 100 percent either. Morris (11 points, six assists) and Niang (19 points, five rebounds) combined to score 20 points in the second half, and players such as Jameel McKay (11 points, eight points), Abdel Nader (13 points) and Bryce Dejean-Jones (seven points) stepped forward as well.

Add in the fact that they were able to limit the Jayhawks to 26.3 percent shooting, and the reasons for Iowa State’s comeback aren’t difficult to pinpoint.

There’s no denying that Iowa State can be a team capable of making a run to the Final Four, and that appeared to be the case last season before Niang broke his foot in their NCAA tournament opener. But their “ceiling” will be determined by how consistent this group is in its approach. When Iowa State is disciplined offensively and uses proper spacing to attack defenses, they are incredibly tough to stop. And when that doesn’t occur, Iowa State essentially defends itself with the opposition needing to do little more than remain in front of them.

Iowa State’s offensive approach in the second half of Saturday’s game resulted in their winning another Big 12 tournament title. And they’ll need to stick to the principles that make them so difficult to slow down for longer stretches if they’re to play deep into the NCAA tournament. They’re certainly capable; the only question is whether or not they choose to do so.

No. 21 West Virginia struggles offensively in 20-point loss at No. 14 Iowa State

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In a matchup of two of the three teams that entered Saturday tied for second place in the Big 12, No. 14 Iowa State’s ability to put points on the board was the difference in their 79-59 win over No. 21 West Virginia. While the game was a bit closer than the final margin would lead one to believe, the Cyclones took control of the game with a 14-2 run to start the second half.

Fred Hoiberg’s Cyclones, one of the best offensive teams in the country, shot 56.5% from the field and outscored the Mountaineers 21-5 from the foul line. While Iowa State committed 16 turnovers, two fewer than the 18 they committed in the first meeting between the two teams (a 74-72 Cyclone win), the Cyclones finished Saturday’s game with fewer turnovers than West Virginia (19). Unlike the first meeting, in which West Virginia outscored Iowa State by three from the foul line, the Mountaineers were unable to cover up for their lackluster shooting by scoring in other areas.

Monte Morris led five Cyclones in double figures with 19 points, and Abdel Nader scored 16 points off the bench for Iowa State, which is now tied for second with Oklahoma. Juwan Staten led the Mountaineers with 16, but no other player managed to score more than nine and as a team they shot 37.9% from the field and 5-for-10 from the foul line.

Bob Huggins’ team plays incredibly hard, and the pressure defense has been a major factor in their resurgence after failing to play at the level most expected of them for most of their first two seasons in the Big 12. But they lack consistent shooters, and that’s something that gets West Virginia in trouble when they’re unable to rack up points from turnovers, second-chance opportunities and the foul line against superior offensive teams.

That was the case Saturday afternoon in Ames, and it makes Monday night’s game against No. 8 Kansas even more important.

The good news for West Virginia is that their schedule still has multiple opportunities to add to their NCAA tournament resume, with the Big 12 being considered by many as the toughest conference in the country from top to bottom. However they won’t be able to take advantage of those opportunities if they can’t get going offensively, which has been an issue in this current stretch of three losses in their last four games.

West Virginia shot 38 percent or worse in all three defeats, and winning is incredibly tough to do when shooting that poorly from the field. While there’s no issue with using your defense to spark the offense, West Virginia has to get better when they’re unable to rely on that plan.

Reserves step forward to help No. 17 Iowa State beat No. 14 West Virginia

Iowa State v Iowa
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In his first year of eligibility after sitting out the 2013-14 campaign per NCAA transfer rules, Iowa State forward Abdel Nader hasn’t been a consistent impact player for the Cyclones. Entering Saturday’s game at No. 14 West Virginia, the former Northern Illinois player averaged just 5.0 points and 3.3 rebounds in 15.9 minutes per game. However, it should be noted that in the Cyclones’ two true road victories Nader has been an important contributor.

Saturday night Nader scored 19 points off the bench, matching the 19 points he scored in a win at Iowa December 12, helping to lead the Cyclones to a 74-72 win over the Mountaineers in Morgantown. Nader, who made six of his eleven field goal attempts, also grabbed seven rebounds to lead a group of reserves who combined to contribute 29 points and 18 rebounds.

Jameel McKay, who finished with six points and seven rebounds, also blocked five shots and the contributions of he and Nader (Matt Thomas scored four points) helped Iowa State make up for quiet nights from both Bryce Dejean-Jones and Naz Long. The two starters combined to score just nine points, shooting 3-for-10 from the field and missing all seven of their three-point attempts.

Iowa State also outscored West Virginia 32-18 in the paint, with the Mountaineers finding the task of getting quality looks inside a difficult one at times. As a result West Virginia settled for perimeter shots, attempting 29 three-pointers (nine more than their season average, and they made just seven) and shooting just 32.4% from the field. Juwan Staten scored 23 points but needed 17 shots to do so, with Devin Williams adding 14 points and 15 rebounds in a losing effort.

Saturday’s game was tight throughout, with Iowa State leading by no more than eight points and West Virginia’s largest lead being a meager three points. But Iowa State’s reserves were the difference-makers, as McKay and Nader combined to score nine points during a 9-2 second half run that turned a one-point deficit (58-57) into a six-point lead (66-60) with 3:28 remaining. And while West Virginia would trim that lead to one point on two separate occasions, they were unable to regain the lead.

Even with all five starters averaging double figures, Iowa State’s going to need contributions from their three bench players in order to contend for a Big 12 title. Saturday night they received that help from Nader and McKay, and the result was a valuable conference road victory.

Top 25 Countdown: No. 17 Iowa State Cyclones

Georges Niang (Getty Images)
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Beginning on October 3rd and running up until November 14th, the first day of the season, College Basketball Talk will be unveiling the 2014-2015 NBCSports.com college hoops preview package. We continue our countdown today with No. 17 Iowa State.

MORE: 2014-2015 Season Preview Coverage | NBCSports Preseason Top 25 | Preview Schedule

source: AP
Fred Hoiberg (AP Photo)

Head Coach: Fred Hoiberg

Last Season: 28-8, 11-7 Big 12 (t-3rd)

Key Losses: Melvin Ejim, Deandre Kane

Newcomers: Bryce Dejean-Jones (transfer), Abdel Nader (transfer), Jameel McKay (transfer), Clayton Custer, Georgis Tsalmpouris

Projected Lineup

G: Monte Morris, So.
G: Bryce Dejean-Jones, Sr.
G: Naz Long, Jr.
F: Dustin Hogue, Sr.
F: Georges Niang, Jr.
Bench: Abdel Nader, Jr.; Matt Thomas, So.; Jameel McKay, Jr.; Georgis Tsalmpouris, Fr.; Clayton Custer, Fr.

They’ll be good because … : This is precisely the kind of roster that Fred Hoiberg always has success with. They have the matchup nightmare in Georges Niang, who has lost 25 pounds and may be the single-toughest player to guard in all of college basketball this season. They have a seemingly endless supply of big guards that can knock down threes — Naz Long, Matt Thomas, Abdel Nader, Bryce Dejean-Jones. They have Dustin Hogue, an uber-athletic combo-forward that should do a decent job filling the role vacated by Melvin Ejim. And they have Monte Morris, a sophomore point guard that should have a big year handling the primary point guard duties.

Hoiberg has the athletes that will allow him to get up and down the floor and the shooters that will allow him to spread things out offensively. No coach in the country is better than Hoiberg at drawing up sets that will put his players in a position to succeed, where they can capitalize on their strengths and take advantage of mismatches. Throw in the aura of playing in Hilton Coliseum — Hilton Magic is real, ladies and gentlemen — and the Cyclones will once again be one of the most entertaining teams in the country to watch.

Georges Niang (Getty Images)

But they might disappoint because … : There are a couple of things that concern me about the Cyclones this season, so I’ll just go ahead and lay them out in bullet points:

  • Defense: The Cyclones have never been known for their defensive ability under Fred Hoiberg — they’ve yet to finish a season ranked in KenPom’s top 50 defensively — which should always be a concern.
  • Bryce Dejean-Jones: This is less of a concern than it is a question mark. BDJ built a reputation for being too much of a gunner during his time at UNLV and USC. I’d bet on Hoiberg getting through to him — he’s batting about 1.000 on transfers in his Iowa State tenure — but until we see it happen, it’s a red flag.
  • Too much Hilton Magic?: Hilton Coliseum is one of the best home courts in the country, but I always get a bit worried by teams that are dominant in their own gyms and struggle on the road. I know, the NCAA tournament is never a road game, but it’s also not a home game, either.

Outlook: With all due respect to Mike Krzyzewski and Tom Izzo and Bill Self and all the other usual suspects when naming the best coaches in the college game, I’m not sure there is a better x’s-and-o’s coach in the country than Fred Hoiberg. There’s a reason that he’s targeted by many NBA teams every offseason, and it’s not because he had a silky jumper when he was still playing.

Simply put, the man knows how to put his players in a position to succeed, particularly on the offensive end of the floor. He also has a proven track record when it comes to getting the best out of players that are on their second, and sometimes third, chance. I had doubts about the Cyclones heading into last season and they went on to finish third in the Big 12 and reach the Sweet 16. I had doubts about Iowa State the year before that and they finish fourth in the conference and came within an Aaron Craft three of reaching the Sweet 16. I had doubts the year Royce White was on the roster, and the Cyclones won 12 Big 12 games.

I have doubts about this year’s team, more than some of the teams that I have ranked lower than No. 17. But I’ve reached the point where I’ll trust that Fred Hoiberg finds a way to make everything fit together.

Two Iowa State guards suspended for the season’s first two games

AP Photo
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Iowa State head coach Fred Hoiberg announced at Wednesday’s media day that Matt Thomas and Abdel Nader will both be suspended for the season’s first two games, as well as an exhibition game, for offseason run-ins with the law.

Nader say out the 2013-2014 season in Ames after transferring into the program from Northern Illinois. He was arrested in April for DWI and was immediately suspended indefinitely by Hoiberg. Thomas was also arrested for driving under the influence. A sophomore, Thomas is a sharpshooting guard that averaged 5.5 points as a freshman and started 15 games.

With Nader and Thomas out, the Cyclones will have their depth limited in the back court, but with Monte Morris, Bryce Dejean-Jones and Naz Long available, they likely won’t take a hit from a talent perspective.

Iowa State will play Oakland in their opener on Nov. 14th and a very good, guard-laden Georgia State team on the 17th in their second game.