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With the preview magazines hitting the shelves, the official start of the college basketball season may as well have begun. We're just around the corner from Midnight Madness, games on aircraft carriers and several doses a week of the dreamiest coach in all of the land, Fred Hoiberg.
Over the next couple weeks, we'll be previewing each Big XII school and counting down how we see things shaking out in the conference this year.
Before we get to that though, let's get to what we all want to talk about, Cyclones Basketball.
The Mayor will be attempting to lead Iowa State to back-to-back NCAA tournaments for the first time since the Godfather himself, Larry Eustachy, was racking up conference championships in '99-'00 and '00-'01. The road to March Madness won't be easy, as the Big XII promises to be one of the deepest leagues in the country, with as many as eight schools that have legitimate post season aspirations.
Luckily for The Mayor, he'll have an experienced roster as five seniors figure to be a part of the regular rotation, bolstered by transfers Korie Lucious and Will Clyburn.
The Front Court
F Anthony Booker - Senior - 6'9" 255 - 3.5 PPG 2.9 REB 42.1 3PT%
F Melvin Ejim - Junior - 6'6" 230 - 9.3 PPG 6.6 REB 48.9 FG% Honorable Mention Big XII
F Percy Gibson - Sophomore - 6'9" 260 - 4.8 PPG 2.0 REB 65.6 FG%
F Georges Niang - Freshman - 6'7" 245 - Consensus top-100 prospect (#56 ESPN, #69 Rivals)
F Will Clyburn - Senior - 6'7" 210 - 17.1 PPG 7.8 REB 2nd-Team All-Mountain West at Utah in 2010-2011
There's no Royce White in this group, but the Cyclone big men provide a versatile rotation with each guy providing a different skill set that as a whole, should equal the aggregate of what Royce White produced last season (I think that's a Moneyball reference). Much like last year, Iowa State lacks a true center, but Booker and Gibson are going to be relied upon to match up with taller opposition throughout the season. Ejim has shown that at only 6'6", he's able to battle inside and could be a breakout candidate. Niang is expected to play immediately and is a gifted post that can hurt you in a variety of ways offensively. The jewel of the front court, however, is Clyburn. In his only season at Utah, Clyburn led the Utes in scoring and rebounding and is expected to be a big part of the Hoiberg's offense this season. Clyburn shot 40.3 from outside at Utah, but is athletic enough to post up and provide a slashing presence when Iowa State has the ball.
The Back Court
G Korie Lucious - Senior - 5'11 170 - 6.5 PPG 4.1 ASST in 2010-2011 - Played in two Final Fours at Michigan State
G Chris Babb - Senior - 6'5" 225 - 7.8 PPG 4.1 REB Made 64 3-pointers in 2011-2012
G Tyrus McGee - Senior - 6'2" 205 - 7.7 PPG 39.4 3PT% 83.9 FT%
G Bubu Palo - Junior - 6'1" 180 - Currently suspended from team activities
G Naz Long - Freshman - 6'4" 210 - One of the top prospects from Canada that didn't elect to play hockey
G Sherron Dorsey-Walker - Freshman - 6'4" 190 - 125th best prospect according to Rivals for 2012 class
G Nkereuwem Okoro - Freshman - 6'5" 230 - One of the top rated 2012 talents out of New York City
This year's back court is going to look a lot different from last year, which is both good and bad. On the down side, there's no dead-eye shooter like Scott Christopherson or savvy veteran scorer like Chris Allen, but on the plus side of things, with Lucious comes a true point guard that Iowa State was sorely missing. Babb showed he can be a lockdown defender in '11-'12, but will need to find a more consistent shooting stroke as he knocked down just 35.2% of his shots from outside. McGee brings instant offense and energy off the bench and may very well be one of the best sixth men in the country. After that, it gets a little more complicated. Palo has been a reliable presence of the bench for the last two years, but is currently suspended from team activities due to legal issues. If he's not welcomed back, look for Long to pick up his minutes and spell Lucious in the back up point guard role, though McGee can also slide over and play some combo guard if needed. Dorsey-Walker and Okoro don't figure to see a lot of time and could be redshirt candidates.
Offensive End of the Floor
In Hoiberg's first two years, the three-point shot has been a big part of the offense. In '10-'11, Iowa State set a school record for 3-pointers made in a season with 275 and last year's team attempted the most 3-pointers in school history with 786. Outside shooting should continue to be a critical component to the offensive output, but gone is Christopherson's team leading 45.5 3PT% and Allen's team leading 76 3-pointers. McGee and Booker proved to be efficient from outside and Babb has the stroke to be dangerous, but Lucious and Clyburn will need to pick up the slack if Iowa State is going to continue to be a from threat multiple positions on the floor.
On the inside, Booker is not exactly a polished commodity on the block, but that's where ISU's post versatility comes into play. Gibson led the Cyclones in FG% last year and as a lefty, he's able to create match up problems for opponents in the post. Ejim looks to continue to improve offensively. He hasn't completed his evolution from a garbage-bucket guy to a creator, but he's making strides. Ejim was one of the biggest beneficiaries of Royce White's uncanny passing ability, but as a junior, more is going to be expected of him as a consistent scorer. The intriguing prospect is Niang. He brings a ready-made offensive game with him to Ames and has great footwork for a young post player. Niang can score with either hand and is comfortable with his back to the basket as well as in face-up situations.
As a whole, Iowa State's offense is going to need to be more efficient and more diversified if this season is going to be a success. Too often last year, Royce White was forced to shoulder the load and play the role of facilitator, creator and scorer. Lucious doesn't have to be that type of player, but he has to be the leader on that end of the floor and get the ball to ISU's scorers. His quickness and ball handling ability are going to allow plenty of opportunities to get into the paint, and from there, The Mayor is going to trust Lucious' playmaking ability to take over.
Clyburn figures to emerge as the Cyclone's leading scorer but I'm not sure what that means. 17 PPG at Utah is an impressive feat, but how will that translate to the Big XII? Is he going to duplicate those numbers, or is he going to be a leading guy on a more balanced offense, much the way White led Iowa State last year?
I mentioned the losses and the questions those losses presented offensively, but defensively, we might be talking about addition by subtraction. To put it kindly, losing White, Christopherson and Allen certainly isn't going to hurt ISU on that end of the floor. As a team, I think we're going to see a much improved defensive unit that's able to change up the personnel, regardless of opponent. Schools with quick guards (Missouri/Texas) killed Iowa State last year, but that might no longer be the case. Lucious is a sound on-ball defender that can match up with quicker guards and McGee plays his ass off on both ends of the floor off the bench. If Palo is reinstated, he'll add another defensive-minded guard to the mix. The Cyclones lockdown man is without a doubt, Chris Babb. At 6'5", Babb is athletic and versatile enough to take on a wing, but quick and steady enough to chase around a smaller guard for 30+ minutes.
Inside is somewhat concerning, but by no means alarming. Booker, Gibson and Ejim are sound defenders, but a little undersized and foul prone. Niang doesn't add much height to the mix and for as promising as he looks offensively, he could be a defensive liability. Clyburn and Babb give Iowa State the ability to play small in certain situations, allowing The Mayor to employ a more pressing and quicker half-court look.
I'm not going to give away my conference prediction at this point, but I will say that I think the Cyclones finish in the top half of the conference and will be making a return trip to The Dance in March.