Michigan basketball coach John Beilein likes to refer to his program as a family. Iowa State, Michigan’ opponent on Saturday may also be a family, just a newer one.
The Cyclones are built almost entirely from transfers. Four of the team’s five starters and six of its top scorers came from other schools, and five of those transfers are playing in their first year of eligibility for their new program.
Needless to say, Iowa State coach Fred Hoiberg has taken on a unique challenge. His team was picked to finish ninth in the Big 12 before the season, but not many prognosticators knew what to make of a group of players that had plenty of individual experience, yet had barely played with each other.
“As talented as we are, we’re still a brand new team together, as far as playing together,” said forward Royce White, speaking to media after Iowa State’s loss to Northern Iowa on Wednesday. “It’s a gelling process and a growing process, and with each win and with each loss, there’s going to be growth.”
When Michigan (5-2) takes the court against the Cyclones, its players may feel like they’re playing in a conference game. Three of Iowa State’s transfers — also the team’s three leading scorers — came from Big Ten schools, including White (Minnesota), guard Chris Allen (Michigan State) and guard Chris Babb (Penn State).
The Wolverines, too, may see a little of themselves in Iowa State (5-2). Besides the identical records, the Cyclones had a solid showing in a warm-weather preseason tournament, winning the South Padre Invitational. But like Michigan in its loss to Virginia, Iowa State disappointed in its first post-tournament game, falling to Northern Iowa.
The similarities don’t end there. The Cyclones take a lot 3-pointers, and make plenty. The team has made at least 10 threes in five of its first seven games. Babb and guard Tyrus McGee — a junior college transfer — are both shooting at least 50 percent from 3-point range, and guard Scott Christopherson is a proficient shooter as well.
Hoiberg’s team clearly has offensive firepower, with White (14.1 points per game, 10.4 rebounds per game) and the guards forming a potent inside-out game. But the Cyclones have been vulnerable on defense, allowing opponents to shoot 44.9 percent from the field. White said that was the reason for the setback against the Panthers.
“I just think we didn’t talk it out like we’re capable of,” White said. “When we were down in San Padre, we played great team defense. Tonight we had a letdown in that area.
“It wasn’t anything complex that we haven’t seen. It’s just communication and effort.”
Iowa State presents a bounce-back opportunity for Michigan’s offense after the unit’s poor performance at Virginia on Tuesday. The Wolverines were constantly frustrated by the Cavaliers’ pack-line defense, unable to get many good looks close to the basket, and they failed to make the most of the few opportunities they did have.
It was a setback for the team, considering how much progress Michigan had appeared to make after tallying consecutive season-high point totals in each of its three games at the Maui Invitational.
After the loss, the Wolverines credited Virginia’s defensive prowess.
“It seems like they practice defense everyday throughout the summer, and in practice, they don’t practice offense at all, it seems like,” said sophomore forward Tim Hardaway Jr. “They were just coming out (and) playing hard-nose defense, locking and trailing when we came off our five-three (and) five-four screens, and they just did their job.”
Hardaway Jr. in particular is looking to return to form. After collecting two fouls early in the game, he was forced to sit most of the first half. And when he returned in the second, he couldn’t find a rhythm and scored a season-low five points on 2-of-9 shooting.
“(Virginia) really guarded him very well,” Beilein said. “Tim is not going to be the last guy that comes in here with a high profile that they pay a lot of attention to. He’s going to have to make tough shots against (opponents), and he had a tough night, but he’ll bounce back.”
Early on, it appears that as Hardaway Jr. goes, the Michigan offense goes. Against the hot-shooting Cyclones, that bounceback effort will be more important than ever.