DeAndre Kane played his last game for Iowa State this past Friday, losing to UConn in the Sweet 16. A lot of things went into his rise into being pretty much the most indispensable player on any team in college ball this season, but maybe none was quite as important as simply waiting around.
At first blush, there isn't anything especially extraordinary about Kane, the 6-foot-4 guard, who just barely squeaks into the top 100 DraftExpress prospects, one spot ahead of teammate Melvin Ejim. He shot 52 percent on twos and 39 percent from three this year, and before that he spent three seasons laying bricks at Marshall, where he wasn't an unknown so much as unremarkable. In his three seasons at Marshall, Kane never posted an offensive rating above 100, and he never exactly lit it up as a Cyclone, either. So how did Kane, who, before trekking to Ames, was largely unknown outside the confines of Huntington and Conference USA, propel ISU to the Sweet 16 minus Georges Niang, one of its best players?
Not many college guards are as strong or as fast as Kane, but then, not many college guards are 24 years old, either. Kane, a one-year graduate athlete, is older than James Harden, who was drafted in 2009. His AAU and high school teammates included DeJuan Blair, Terrelle Pryor, Herb Pope, and D.J. Kennedy—players who haven't been enrolled in college since LeBron was in Cleveland. And yet there was Kane, canning threes in the opening rounds, making the game seem fundamentally unfair. Kane has gone through three college seasons, and is clearly more physically mature than his backcourt counterparts. He's sort of like a one-man version of that ridiculous Miami squad last season with an average age of about 24: When Reggie Johnson or Kenny Kadji caught the ball in the post a year ago, they had the moves, knowledge, and uncommon-for-college strength to dislodge defenders and get buckets. It's a compelling sort of dominance, won by maneuvering through eligibility loopholes rather than impossible genetic advantages, the distant CPA cousin to the carnie folk hero route.
Iowa State coach Fred Hoiberg was faced with a significant rebuilding project after last season. Nearly 60 percent of the team's minutes had to be replaced, and other than Niang and Ejim, the Cyclones were laden with question marks. The two biggest were how a big recruiting class would adapt to playing in the Big 12, and just what they had with Kane, an incoming transfer who had reportedly worn out the coaching staff at Marshall.
ISU is one of the smallest teams in the nation—just three Cyclones are 6-foot-6 or taller, and one of those, Niang, is out for the season—so the squad is dependent on creating halfcourt spacing, spreading the floor and utilizing gaps and dribble drives. In the absence of bigs, Hoiberg essentially decided to use his point guard like a single-wing tailback.
When Kane follows his triple-threat position with a drive, he can take multiple bumps from an opponent and still keep churning. Against Kansas State, Kane finds himself being guarded by Thomas Gipson, and rather than swing the ball to another mismatch, Kane just up and drives directly at Gipson, squeezing past the forward and another defender, then splitting two more defenders on the way to a wild layup attempt. That particular shot didn't go in, but there are guys in the NFL who don't hit the hole with that kind of balance and agility. It does work out better most times, though. Here he is on Friday, working off a high screen that is effectively just an iso that gets him double teamed at the top of the key, and finding his way into the lane anyway:
This is just what Kane does. By the end of this play, there are four Huskies converging on him in the lane, and find space to get his shot and draw a foul anyway. Synergy has him down for isolating on 13.9 percent of his plays this year, but enough came on actions like this to make the 23 percent of possessions that were as the pick and roll ballhandler an even more daunting. For example:
No one really noticed following ISU's win against North Carolina, but Kane made a ridiculously athletic lay-up to give the squad an edge. When the Tar Heels didn't switch Kane's screen, another which wasn't really much of a screen, he just reset and drove the lane like his man wasn't there, positioning his body to provide separation from the converging UNC bigs, then flipping the ball of the top of the backboard, over the defenders he'd just dribbled into. You've really got to watch the play a few times to realize just how impossible that shot is.
Since single-covering Kane was nearly impossible, opponents either have to zone the Cyclones—hazardous, as the team thrives beyond the arc and Kane rips through gaps in a zone like nothing—or they're forced to help on Kane's drives, which leads to numerous open looks for the other Cyclones. Above, Baylor reverted to its 2-3 zone (that morphs as a 1-3-1 at times) during their Big 12 tournament contest with the Cyclones, and Kane, who is so obviously quicker than Brady Heslip as to make the pretense that one player would guard him comical, punctures the zone, eurosteps over two help defenders at once, and bodies into the center at the rim, banging in the layup. It's the kind of play you make when you're goofing on the middle school kids, playing four-on-one while you wait for a game to start.
Kane's full-grown-manness led Hoiberg to invert his offense frequently this season, with the backcourt operating on the interior, and trust that players like Niang or Ejim would convert from the arc. Hoiberg instructed Kane to both work off isolation and in the post, much more than he had at Marshall. Kane's size made him an impossible cover for opposing guards in the post; they'd either foul him or simply couldn't prevent him backing down and then drop stepping. And by going iso, Kane took advantage of the inherent offensive mismatches.
In this clip, versus Kansas, Kane starts to back down a helpless Frank Mason from the three-point line(!), taking several dribbles until he's right the paint, then he makes his move and draws a foul. He could also pass out of double teams on the block, which he drew constantly, like here against UConn:
Only one other team assisted on a higher percentage of their attempts at the rim, and because Hoiberg's perimeter game was a cornerstone of his NBA career, ISU thrived on threes—their three point attempts rate (44 percent) ranked among Ken Pomeroy's top 60 and five of the seven Cyclones who got significant minutes attempted more than 100 threes. So it wasn't all Kane, but it was a lot of him: His assist rate sits just over 30 percent, and he kicked just enough to open up more room to drive.
Kane's tendency has always been to hero-ball, with questionable or out of rhythm shots coming along with beating up the freshmen. This was his M.O. at Marshall, where he was the only player on the team who could create a shot, and on Friday against UConn, Kane tried to hero-ball the Cyclones into the Elite Eight, but for the first time in weeks, he wasn't canning everything he took. He went 4-14 from two-point range, and while his aggressiveness drew fouls, he went cold from the stripe, too (2-9). The Cyclones never really had a chance of making a deep run once Niang went down in the opening round, but as long as Kane was in there beating up on one-and-dones who were in middle school when he was a freshman, it never really felt that way.
Matt Giles is a reporter for New York Magazine and has contributed to College Basketball Prospectus, ESPN the Magazine, ESPN Insider, BuzzFeed, and Salon.