By David Song | @DeltaSigma96
Sports Capital Journalism Program
CHICAGO — A storm is brewing.
The No. 10 seed Miami Hurricanes (25-10) and the No. 11 seed Iowa State Cyclones (22-12) are bound for a Midwest Region Sweet 16 game on Friday night at United Center. The Hurricanes will try for the first Elite Eight berth in program history, while the Cyclones look to return to a regional final for the second time and the first since 2000.
Both teams are coming off eye-opening upsets. Miami vanquished the No. 2 seed Auburn Tigers 79-61 in the second round in the second-largest win margin by a 10 seed over a 2 seed in NCAA Tournament history. The Hurricanes enjoyed a 30-1 advantage in fastbreak points, limiting All-American bigs Jabari Smith and Walker Kessler to a combined 12 points on 3-of-22 shooting.
Iowa State bested No. 3 seed Wisconsin 54-49 last time out, holding the Big Ten regular-season champs to 29.8 percent shooting and two 3-pointers, both season lows. Big Ten Player of the Year Johnny Davis of the Badgers converted just four of his 16 field goal attempts against the Cyclones.
The matchup will be the fourth between teams seeded 10 and 11, joining Virginia Commonwealth-Florida State in 2011, Dayton-Stanford in 2014 and Syracuse-Gonzaga in 2016.
For both squads, looking at the opposing roster is akin to looking in a mirror. The Hurricanes and Cyclones have experienced impressive one-year turnarounds: Miami went 10-17 last year and Iowa State a dismal 2-22. Each fields a mobile small-ball lineup, with Miami’s averaging just under 6-foot-5 and Iowa State averaging 6-foot-6. Both pride themselves on defensive tenacity—the Hurricanes lead the Atlantic Coast Conference with an average of 8.86 steals, while the Cyclones are second in the Big 12, averaging 8.62 steals.
“We’re playing a team that’s very similar to us,” said Hurricanes head coach Jim Larranaga. “[The Cyclones] are very defensive-minded and they’re very stingy on defense. They force a lot of turnovers and they share the ball offensively.”
Where these units differ is on the attack. Miami uses all its steals to fuel the nation’s best transition offense, averaging 1.231 points per possession according to Synergy Sports. Meanwhile, Iowa State prefers to slow things down — its 62.3 points per game allowed is good for third in the Big 12. The Cyclones lock their opponents into a half-court pressure cooker, ranking second in America in terms of forced turnovers per game with 18.
“[The Hurricanes] are a team that wants a flow and a pace offensively to score in the open court,” said Iowa State head coach T.J. Otzelberger, leader of the best one-year resurgence in Big 12 history. “We’re a team that prides itself on being a very gritty half court defensive team that pressures the basketball and dictates what we want to do.”
So the question is: can Miami’s relentless typhoon of an offense breach Iowa State’s airtight storm wall on defense? The Hurricanes certainly have the potential to do so, led by sixth-year redshirt senior Charlie Moore. Averaging 12.8 points and a team-best 4.6 assists per game, Moore is a savvy point guard who according to Larranaga picked up the Hurricanes’ small-ball system in “no time at all.”
Moore, a Chicago native, distributes the ball to a pair of sweet-shooting wings. Fellow sixth-year senior Kameron McGusty (17.4 points per game, 4.9 rebounds) is the Big 12’s fourth-leading scorer, and sophomore Isaiah Wong (15.4 points, 4.3 rebounds) is tenth in that category. Two athletic frontcourt players round out Miami’s starting five: junior Jordan Miller (10.0 points, 6.1 rebounds) and redshirt junior Sam Waardenburg of Auckland, New Zealand (8.5 points, 4.2 rebounds).
When asked how his team will attack Iowa State, McGusty said: “It all starts with our defense, honestly. Our defense turns our offense up. We’re playing in transition. We’re getting steals, we’re getting stops, clapping. And that’s what gets us going.”
The Cyclones will counter with senior guard Izaiah Brockington in the backcourt. Brockington is the Big 12’s fourth-leading scorer and rebounder averaging 17.1 points and 6.8 rebounds. Freshman floor general Tyrese Hunter chips in 10.9 points per game and leads all NCAA Tournament first-years with 165 assists and counting. Senior Gabe Kalscheur (9.5 points, 2.3 rebounds) is a defensive maestro who rises up in big games—his team-high 22 points were vital in Iowa State’s win over Wisconsin.
“Communication is key with our defense,” explained Kalscheur. “The more and more we can do with that, we can definitely stop [the Cyclones] in transition and make them face our half-court defense.”
This meeting will be just the second time these squads have faced each other, with Iowa State winning the first game 73-56 in the 2016 Advocare Invitational. The Hurricanes lead the ACC in turnover margin at 4.63, good enough for fifth in the country. Only three times has Miami given the ball away more than its opponent—Iowa State will try to make that four. Ball security could be key in deciding who moves on to the Elite Eight.