As is our wont, we've exchanged questions and answers with our opponent's SB Nation counterpart. This week, as Virginia prepares to face the Iowa State Cyclones, that means it's Wide Right & Natty Lite's turn. Thanks to Kevin at WRNL for participating. Be sure to swing over there for our answers to their questions as well.
STL: In both the AP and coaches' preseason polls, Virginia and Iowa State were neighbors at 6th and 7th, respectively. Given those pre-season expectations, how would you rate the Cyclones' regular season?
WRNL: The regular season was somewhat of a disappointment for Iowa State fans who looked at that preseason ranking and believed us to be a true top 10 program. The reality of the situation was we had just lost our head coach/program legend to the NBA (Fred Hoiberg) and were coming off an NCAA Tournament in which we'd been upset by a 14-seed C-USA opponent. Despite those facts, we were ranked highly in the preseason because we returned a vast amount of experience and one of the most talented offensive players in college basketball—Georges Niang.
Kansas won their billionth Big 12 regular season title in a row while ISU struggled to stay above .500 in arguably the deepest conference in the country. It was super frustrating to watch at times, as most of the losses were ones where the Cyclones had a chance at the W in the final minutes.
However, I'd rate the regular season at a B- overall. Could it have been better? Yes. Was it bad? No. Especially considering the transition period Steve Prohm had to go through as the new head coach.
STL: This game will feature two of the leaders for season-end individual awards in UVa's Malcolm Brogdon and ISU's Georges Niang. What makes Niang's game click? Which players have had success guarding him, and is there a specific type of matchup he struggles with?
WRNL: Niang is truly a special talent. There's no easy comparison for his game. If you've watched an ISU game at any point during the past few years, there's a good chance you know he came up the AAU ranks on the same team that Nerlens Noel played on, and thus had to go up against Noel in practice every day. Going against a shot-blocker and athlete of that caliber taught Niang how to get crafty around the basket and his wide array of post moves are wonderful to watch (when your team's not playing against him).
The thing that makes Niang so tough to guard is that he can counter his inside game with an effective outside game as well. This season, he's hitting 39% of his 3-point attempts (53-136) while shooting 54.6% total from the field. Simply put, he's one of the most efficient offensive players in the country.
There's only one real instance where I watched Niang play and thought he was overmatched by a defender and that was when Joel Embiid played for Kansas. Embiid's combination of size and strength made it tough for Niang to get much going when ISU played that KU team. He went 4-20 from the field against Embiid in Hilton Coliseum, which is unheard of for Niang at home.
STL: Steve Prohm's first season has seen a virtually seamless transition from Fred Holberg's departure for the NBA. His Murray State teams won more than 20 games each of his four seasons there. Where does the trajectory point for this Iowa State program with Prohm at the helm?
WRNL: I think Iowa State will continue to be a NCAA Tournament team under Coach Prohm. He's going to have to do a great job coaching next year to keep up the program's momentum since we lose three seniors and possibly Monte Morris early to the NBA Draft, but he's a proven winner and I think he has a great idea of what he wants the culture of ISU basketball to be going forward.
STL: Five of ISU's 11 losses came against teams ranked in the KenPom top 10 at tip-off. But the Cyclones have also shown the ability to win those sorts of games, picking up victories over Oklahoma and Kansas in the span of one week in late January. Is there one thing in particular you can point to as the strongest determining factor for a win vs a loss?
WRNL: It sounds cliche, but I believe a lot of what determines the Cyclones' results simply boils down to focus. As you've pointed out, we've seen this team beat some of the best teams this year while also dropping a few games they should have won. I'm of the opinion that the players were just biding their time during the regular season so they could get back into the NCAA Tournament and have their shot at redemption.
The loss to UAB in last year's tourney has stayed on the minds of this year's team during the first two games of the tournament in which they played teams with double digit numbers next to their names. For this Sweet Sixteen matchup, ISU will be the underdog, but if they keep their focus sharp, they have the talent to knock off the Cavaliers.
STL: How do you anticipate Iowa State will try to attack Virginia's pack line defense? Is there one matchup you see as the biggest headache or the biggest advantage for ISU?
WRNL: The drive and kick game is gonna have to work well for Iowa State if they hope to win on Friday. The Cyclone offense typically struggles when they get away from sharing the ball and go into more of an iso offense. But when they're driving, kicking and knocking down shots, they can score in a hurry. We call that "spurtability" over on WRNL.
As for individual matchups, I could actually see Niang having to work his ass off to have a good game if he's guarded by Malcom Brogdon. But if Niang gets some post touches and draws more than one defender, then a guy like Matt Thomas could do some serious damage on the perimeter via the kick out.
STL: Bottom line: Who ya got?
WRNL: I see Virginia as one of the most complete teams in the tournament, and while I'd like to pick my Cyclones, I think this is the game where the run comes to an end. I expect the Cavaliers to wear down ISU on both ends of the floor and grind out a close victory, followed by me openly weeping as Niang walks off the floor in an Iowa State uniform for the last time. Virginia 74 - Iowa State 70