John Clay: Iowa State's three-wheeling offense a unique test for Kentucky

jclay@herald-leader.comMarch 16, 2012 

Iowa State Cyclones guard Scott Christopherson (11) went in for a basket as Iowa State played Connecticut on Thursday March 15, 2012 in Louisville, Ky. Photo by Mark Cornelison | Staff

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LOUISVILLE — It's one of the go-to lines in the Book of Calipari, from the chapter on opponents, from the passage on the dangers of perimeter shooting.

The Kentucky basketball coach recited it Friday, as if giving a reading, when speaking of his team's next foe, the Iowa State Cyclones.

"They're going to shoot 25 threes," said John Calipari, high atop the makeshift podium in the main interview room off a back hallway of the KFC Yum Center.

"And if they make 20," he told the assembled media, "then it has been a great season."

Chances are, Iowa State won't make 20 three-pointers Saturday night when the two teams meet at approximately 7:45 in a round-of-32 game of the NCAA Tournament.

But the Cyclones could make 15.

They've done that twice this season.

There's a decent chance they will make 10 or more. After all, Fred Hoiberg's club has made double-digit threes in 14 of its 33 games. The 'clones are 12-2 in those games, the two losses coming to one team, Missouri.

"We know," said UK guard Marquis Teague, "they like to shoot the three."

Now comes the scary part: Over its past three games, Kentucky has not exactly done a credible job of defending the three.

Starting with UK's game against Florida in the SEC Tournament last weekend in New Orleans, opponents have made 23 of 55 three-pointers for 41.8 percent.

Florida hit 11 of 22. Vanderbilt was 6-for-18. Thursday night, in UK's 81-66 win over Western, the losing Hilltoppers made six of 15 shots from behind the line for 40 percent.

"We've got to get out on our shooters with our hands high," said UK freshman Kyle Wiltjer.

That's especially true with Iowa State's shooters. The Cyclones boast four players who have made at least 50 threes on the season — Tyrus McGee 50-for-124; Chris Babb 64-for-193; Chris Allen 75-for-196 and Scott Christopherson 66-for-143.

As a team, Fred Hoiberg's club ranks 10th nationally, averaging 8.8 made three-pointers per game. Of its total shots, 41.8 percent have come from behind the three-point line, as compared to 27 percent of Kentucky's.

Plus, a couple of unusual factors feed the very way ISU makes those threes.

One is point forward Royce White, the 6-foot-8, 270-pounder who nearly ended up at Kentucky after being dismissed at Minnesota, and who has rare ball-handling and passing skills for a person his size.

"He's a tough matchup for any team," said Christopherson on Saturday. "Just the way he plays and can move the ball around."

And where Florida likes to shoot threes in transition, often with trailers on fast breaks, Hoiberg's club runs hand-offs and uses numerous ball screens.

"We started the year doing a lot of hand-offs," said Christopherson. "But the last eight games or so, I know especially myself, I've been calling for more ball screens and then getting it to the rim."

That's what happened in Iowa State's win over Connecticut on Thursday night. The Huskies limited ISU to just 6-for-16 from beyond the arc, but the Cyclones took advantage of the tight perimeter defense to attack the rim.

Of course, Kentucky has Anthony Davis at the rim.

"We want to make them drive it to our bigs," said UK's Teague.

Or maybe the Cyclones won't have to drive. Hoiberg, a legendary player at Iowa State, was known as a knock-down three-point shooter in the NBA. It's part of what kept him in the league for 10 years and later propelled him into a front-office job with the Minnesota Timberwolves before coming back to Ames to coach.

"I'm a coach who wants to play the way that is best for the personnel," he said this week. "I tell the kids, 'The only time I'll take you out is if you pass up open looks.'"

And if they hit 20 of those open looks?

From the Book of Cal: It has been a good season.

John Clay: (859) 231-3226. Blog: johnclay.bloginky.com. Twitter: @johnclayiv.

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