Fred Hoiberg was born to do this. The son of a sociology professor at Iowa State, Hoiberg essentially grew up on the university's campus. He was the quarterback of the high school football team, good enough to get a scholarship offer from Nebraska during the height of Tom Osborne's reign. He was best basketball player in the state, and turned down offers from more prestigious programs to play for the hometown Cylones.
Now, he's already one of the most indispensable coaches in the country just four years into his career.
As he prepares to lead the third-seeded Cyclones into the tournament on Friday, Hoiberg's story reads like the plot of a Disney movie. It sounds cheesy if you really let yourself get caught up in it, but that's OK. Sports are only cheesy when they're good. When they're bad, sports damage brains, drain tax money for publicly financed stadiums and create dangerous subcultures. We'll take cheesy. It's better than the alternative.
* * *
(Photo by David Purdy/Getty Images)
Hoibert earned his nickname while starring at Iowa State in the mid '90s. He was the prototypical college gunner, a guard who relied on three-point shooting to make up for his relative lack of size and athleticism. While on his way to averaging 20 points per game as a junior, Hoiberg was popular enough to get write-in votes for Ames' mayoral election in 1993. He's been "The Mayor" ever since.
It may have started as a joke, but it's hard to find a more fitting nickname anywhere. Hoiberg really does run Ames. He is the hometown boy who made good, and now he's lifting up the entire town with the success of the Cyclones this season. It's how so many hoop dreams begin, but few have pulled it off like this.
How has Hoiberg turned around the Cyclones from a team that missed five straight tournaments to a school that's now appearing in the Big Dance for the third straight year? By knowing when to be patient and when there's simply no time to wait. Hoiberg wanted to quickly get the Cyclones back to contention in the Big 12, so he banked on transfers, several of whom were tagged as "troubled" at their previous schools. Once he got them, Hoiberg showed the patience and care to mold them into stars in Ames.
Royce White was first. The talented combo forward was plagued by anxiety issues and was charged with theft and disorderly conduct during his freshman season at Minnesota. Hoiberg gave him a home at Iowa State and White gave the Cyclones a star player and their first trip to the tournament since 2005. Will Clyburn, another versatile forward who had previously shined at Utah was next. This season's transfer star is DeAndre Kane, the former Marshall point guard who seems to have corralled his temper and gained the ability to use his emotion only for the good of the team, is this season's transfer star.
It wasn't always smooth sailing for Kane, who dealt with numerous issues amid the death of his father. He allegedly punched a man outside a bar in 2011 at Marshall. The next year, he allegedly punched a teammate during a closed scrimmage. The next year, he threw a full bottle of Gatorade at a team manager for screwing up his food order. At that point, Marshall had had enough and Kane was essentially a free agent as a college graduate with one more season of eligibility.
He chose Iowa State, where Hoiberg has molded a point guard as dynamic as any in the country. The 24-year-old Kane enters the tournament averaging 17 points, 6.7 rebounds and 5.8 assists per game. There isn't another player in the country who meets those statistical plateaus. Kane has scored 20 or more points in six of his last nine games, a stretch that includes a 20-6-6 line during an upset win against Kansas in the semifinals of the Big 12 Tournament.
But Kane isn't even be the team's best player. That would be Melvin Ejim, a 6'6 senior forward who started in Ames and never left. He's become one of the deadliest scorers in the country this season and took home the Big 12 Player of the Year award over Kansas' Andrew Wiggins and Joel Embiid, two surefire top-three picks this summer in the 2014 NBA Draft.
Ejim isn't much of an NBA prospect — he's rated the No. 27 senior by Draft Express, one spot behind Kane — but he's been invaluable for the Cyclones. Ejim was already tearing up the Big 12 when he dropped 48 points and 18 rebounds against TCU at Feb. 8 on 20-of-24 shooting. There's been other big games, too: 22 against Iowa and against Michigan, 25 against Texas, 30 and 16 against Kansas State.
Ejim and Kane personify what's made Hoiberg such a gift for the Cyclones. He trusts his players and puts them in a system that emphasizes their strengths and hides their weaknesses. You want to play for Hoiberg because he lets you play the game. There are signature systems all throughout college basketball, from Jim Boeheim's 2-3 zone to Louisville's matchup press, but none seem as fun for players as Hoiberg's free-flowing pace-and-space offense.
Hoiberg's system is simple: open up the floor by playing five shooters and push the ball at every opportunity. The Cyclones rank No. 13 in adjusted tempo this season, per Ken Pomeroy. They aren't jacking as many threes as last year's team, but every starter is a threat from the outside. Sag off any Cyclones player and you're liable to give up three points. That includes center Dustin Hogue (who is, of course, a community college transfer).
There's a downside to the system and Hoiberg's personnel, and that's the crater in the middle. The Cyclones go 6'6-6'7-6'7 on the front line and susceptible to being punished by talented centers. Hoiberg called Joel Embiid the best player in the country after the Kansas freshman destroyed the Cyclones earlier this season. Fortunately for Iowa State, there is only one Embiid, and there aren't many players who are particularly close.
The computers have had a thing against Iowa State all year. Despite winning the Big 12 Tournament and entering the Big Dance at No. 9 in the AP Poll, the Cyclones are just No. 23 in Pomeroy's rankings. Pomeroy gives North Carolina Central (be sure to read Rodger on the Eagles) a 27 percent chance to pull off the first round upset, while the rest of the No. 14 seeds facing No. 3s average a 13 percent chance of doing the same. Success in March is always fragile, and Iowa State will be no different. If they run into a big man who can hurt them inside, it might not matter how great the Cyclones' offense is.
What isn't debatable is Hoiberg's deft touch of Hoiberg. He has already signed a 10-year contract extension that features a $2 million buyout should he leave for another college gig, but only a $500K buyout if he chooses an NBA job. Pro teams will continue to take notice.
Even if Hoiberg doesn't stick around Ames forever, the mark he's left in indelible. The only way his legend can continue to grow is through tournament wins. This Cyclones team has all of the talent to do just that.