Last season felt like the year for Iowa State. Amid rumors that the Chicago Bulls were already circling Fred Hoiberg from afar, the Cyclones coach had put together what looked like his strongest team yet.
Iowa State had brilliant point guard play with Monte Morris. It had a stat sheet-stuffing forward in Georges Niang. It had shooters on the wing and in the front court to stretch the defense. It finally had a rim protector in transfer Jameel McKay. And when Iowa State raced to its second consecutive Big 12 Tournament title, it seemed like Hoiberg was on the precipice of the one thing that eluded him during his beloved time in Ames -- a run to the Final Four.
Then the UAB game happened. Facing a team that finished fifth in Conference USA, Iowa State looked flat and tentative and never found the signature offensive groove that made the Hoiberg era such a thrill for fans. The Cyclones were eliminated in their very first NCAA Tournament game, and before they knew it Hoiberg had accepted Chicago's offer to move on to the NBA.
If it felt like Hoiberg's storybook career at Iowa State deserved a better ending, maybe Cyclones fans can take solace in his parting gift. The team former Murray State coach Steve Prohm inherits from Hoiberg returns six members of last year's rotation, and has the potential to immediately redeem the program following last year's disheartening tournament loss.
Morris is back after setting records for assist-to-turnover ratio during his first two seasons of college basketball. McKay is back to anchor the defense. Niang returns as one of the most unique players in the country, a highly skilled offensive weapon who can serve as the hub of the entire offense. With Naz Long and Matt Thomas, there's enough shooting to keep Hoiberg's ethos alive.
Hoiberg's teams always relied on transfers, and so it's fitting that he left two more talented ones for Iowa State as he departed. Hallice Cooke, who comes over from Oregon State, adds scoring punch to the backcourt, while Marquette transfer Deonte Burton could be a much needed slasher once he becomes eligible.
Prohm's penchant for playing fast and designing dynamic offenses at Murray State sure seems like a perfect fit for this roster. Players like Morris, Niang and McKay have all the motivation they need for a dominant year after the UAB loss. The Big 12 will be as tough as ever, but Iowa State proved it could play with anyone during Hoiberg's time in Ames, and that shouldn't change at all this season.
Under Hoiberg, Iowa State has boasted a top-25 offense each of the last four years. They've been No. 6 in offensive efficiency twice during that span, and ended up at No. 11 last year. The common denominators? A super-fast tempo and a healthy amount of three-point attempts.
Iowa State has finished with a pace that ranked in the top 35 of the country the last three seasons. The shooting has largely been carried by Long and Niang, who have each proven to be high volume, high efficiency threats from deep. If Iowa State can keep the offense humming even without Hoiberg, the impressive regular season results Cyclones fans have gotten used to shouldn't change all that much.
Long jacked 5.8 threes per game last season and was able to hit them at a 39 percent clip. Niang improved his shooting considerably as a junior, jumping from a 33 percent three-point shooter as a sophomore to a 40 percent shooter (on 3.4 attempts per game) as a junior. Morris hit 40 percent of this threes for a second consecutive season last year, as well.
Spacing is critical in Iowa State's attack, because Niang can be unlocked as an all-around playmaker when he's surrounded by shooters. He's like if LeBron James suddenly had all of his athleticism sapped by aliens. We swear this is a compliment. Last year, he was one of only 10 players in the country to average at least 15.3 points, 3.4 assists and 5.4 rebounds.
Niang might lack the foot speed and defensive ability to be an NBA player, but he's a star in college and ISU is lucky to have him back. After a 4 for 15 game against UAB, he should be hell bent on going out on top in his senior season.
We hate to keep bringing up that loss to a 14th-seeded UAB team, but it exposed the flaws of a team that relies so heavily on shooting. Namely: When the shots aren't dropping, can anyone here get to the rim?
McKay is an athletic marvel, and a player whose dunks and blocks you'll be seeing on highlight packages all season. The rest of this roster, however, is more skilled than athletic. UAB ended up pounding the Cyclones on the glass in that tournament game (52-37) and had a number of players simply beat ISU at the rim.
The defense was respectable but never great under Hoiberg, finishing No. 72 and No. 71 in efficiency the last two seasons. McKay helps a lot. Perhaps Abdel Nader, now in his second season as a transfer from Northern Illinois, can make an impact on that end too with a bigger role expected this season.
If everyone knows ISU by its offense, defense is always going to be the question mark. If the D can hold up against the best of the best in the tournament, this team can go a long way.