Big 12 Team Preview: Iowa State Cyclones

Posted by Taylor Erickson on November 6th, 2013

Over the next two weeks, the Big 12 microsite will preview each of the league’s 10 teams. Today: Iowa State.

Where We Left Off: For Iowa State fans, please excuse us, we don’t mean to re-live a bad memory. The 2012-13 season ended with Aaron Craft ripping the hearts out of Cyclone Nation with a go-ahead three-pointer in the final seconds of the second (or now third?) round of the NCAA Tournament last March. Iowa State made a serious statement a year ago, proving it belongs among the league’s best teams after finishing in a tie for fourth in the conference. While Hilton Coliseum has never been an easy place to play, Fred Hoiberg‘s mesh of young players and transfers has paid dividends in making Iowa State one of the scariest teams in the league every season.

Can Fred Hoiberg's Iowa State team build upon a fourth place finish in the league last season? (Ames Tribune)

Can Fred Hoiberg’s Iowa State team build upon a fourth place finish in the league last season? (Ames Tribune)

Positives: Fresh off a successful run in league play a season ago, there’s so much to like about where Hoiberg has this program headed. While this Iowa State team did lose several key components to graduation, they return Melvin Ejim and Georges Niang in the frontcourt, both of whom played significant minutes last year. Ejim is a double-double machine down low and one of the best rebounders in the conference (although Ejim is expected to be out for most of November with a knee injury), while Niang has crafty skills to score the ball around the basket, and the touch to stretch a defense with his ability to knock down the outside jumper. Marshall transfer DeAndre Kane will be leaned on to fill the void from departed point guard Korie Lucious after averaging 15.1 points per game a season ago for the Thundering Herd, and freshman Matt Thomas is a sharpshooter who will fit in beautifully with Hoiberg’s three-point heavy system, helping Cyclone fans get over the loss of Tyus McGee to graduation.

Negatives: Hoiberg has transformed Iowa State into “Transfer U.” since he took over as head coach, and the strategy has worked almost flawlessly during this period. That said, there’s always a bit of a risk in relying so heavily on impact transfers and hoping the roster will gel during the year. While there is still a ton of talent on this team, the departures of Lucious and McGee, along with Chris Babb and Will Clyburn will create a big uncertainty in the backcourt. Whether Iowa State can continue to shoot the ball from deep as well as it has in the past will be a major factor in the team’s success this season.

Best-Case Scenario: Hoiberg once again proves he’s not only one of the best coaches in the Big 12, but also one of the best in the nation as he finds a way to seamlessly blend his transfer talent in with returning players. While we don’t believe Iowa State has the talent to threaten Kansas and Oklahoma State for the league title, a third place finish is certainly not out of the question. Let’s not forget, last year’s Cyclone squad had Kansas on the ropes twice in the regular season and could have had a major impact on the league race if not for a Ben McLemore bank shot in Lawrence and a questionable series of calls down the stretch in Ames. You can bet no coach will look forward to traveling to Hilton Coliseum in league play. An invitation to the Dance in March should be the expectation for this team.

Worst-Case Scenario: As good as Niang and Ejim will be down low for Fred Hoiberg’s squad, the guards really make the Cyclones go  in his offense. If Kane struggles in his new position for Iowa State and freshman Matt Thomas has a difficulty adjusting to the quicker pace of play at the college level, the Cyclones could sputter this season. While the offense will probably have no problem putting points on the board, can Iowa State lock down teams enough on the defensive end to win games when they’re having an off night shooting? If there are too many of those nights, the NIT could be this team’s destiny.

Ejim is a Difference Maker for the Cyclones, Assuming He Is Healthy (AP)

Ejim is a Difference Maker for the Cyclones, Assuming He Is Healthy (AP)

Projected Starting Lineup:

  • F – Georges Niang (So., 6’7″, 240 pounds; 12.1 PPG)
  • F – Melvin Ejim (Sr., 6’6″, 220 pounds; 11.3 PPG)
  • F – Dustin Hogue (Jr., 6’6″, 215 pounds)
  • G – Matt Thomas (Fr., 6’3″, 200 pounds)
  • G – DeAndre Kane  (Sr., 6’4″, 200  pounds)

Reserves: Freshman Monte Morris, Michigan’s Mr. Basketball in high school last season, will see significant minutes for Iowa State behind Kane. Junior Percy Gibson averaged five points and three rebounds per game a season ago, and will provide depth behind Niang and Ejim down low. Sophomore Naz Long will look to replace the production of last year’s sixth man, Tyus McGee, who was an absolute assassin from behind the arc. Long can really shoot the ball from deep, but also has the ability to play some point for Hoiberg this year. Expect junior college transfer K.J. Bluford to challenge for starting time as the guard led the junior college ranks in three-pointers made last season.

Set Your DVR: While Iowa State’s non-conference schedule doesn’t feature a bevy of high profile games, there are certainly many match-ups worth tuning in for. Unfortunately, the injury this preseason to Ejim will sideline the senior forward for a good chunk of the non-conference period.

  • 11/17 vs. Michigan: What better way for the Cyclones to really kick off their non-conference slate than a home match-up with a Michigan squad that made the national championship game a year ago? The absence of Ejim will certainly hurt when trying to contain Mitch McGary, but the three-point shot is always a great equalizer.
  • 11/20 at BYU: Just three days after a home showdown with Michigan, Iowa State will travel to BYU for a tough non-conference road contest. The Cougars reached the semifinals of the NIT a year ago, and always prove tough in their own gym.
  • 12/13 vs. Iowa: A home game against intrastate foe Iowa will be the final tune-up for Hoiberg’s team before it heads to Hawai’i for the Diamond Head Classic. Regardless of Iowa’s talent level, this rivalry will certainly get the adrenaline going for both teams, and you can bet Hilton Coliseum will be rocking. It will be interesting to note whether Ejim has returned from his knee injury in time for this contest.

Outlook: Is there any reason to really believe that Hoiberg won’t find a way to make it all work again this season in Ames? The level of uncertainty may be higher heading into this year than in years past due to the amount of production Iowa State lost from a season ago, but Hoiberg’s track record leads us to believe it will all come together. Make no mistake about it, the Cyclones will rely significantly on contributions from Kane and Hogue, along with freshmen Thomas and Morris, but the leadership of Ejim and Niang will be beneficial. Whether Iowa State can become a good defensive team might be the difference between finishing third and fifth in the league this year, and ultimately could be the factor that decides whether the Cyclones make it in as an at-large to the NCAA tournament. If death and taxes are two certainties in life, a Fred Hoiberg-coached-team stroking it from deep is almost assuredly a third as Iowa State will once again be a fun team to watch for the next five months.

Taylor Erickson (54 Posts)

Taylor Erickson is a Big 12 contributor for RTC. You can follow him on Twitter @tc_erickson.

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