With Iowa State's win over Baylor on Saturday, the Cyclones locked up the third-seed in the Big XII basketball tournament, their highest seeding since the Jamaal Tinsley-led 2001 team. In fact, the only time a Cyclone team has approached a finish this high since then was the 2005 Curtis Stinson/Will Blaylock team.
So what does this mean for Iowa State? For starters, it means that the Cyclones improved from a last place finish in the Big XII to a third place finish in one year. Nine full places! (Albeit with two less teams than last year). Still, movin' on up! A third place finish also garnered Iowa State a first round bye in the Big XII Tournament, which automatically moves the Cyclones into the second round of the tournament for the first time since 2005. If Iowa State can beat Texas Thursday night, that will mark ISU's first victory in the Big XII Tournament since 2005. And of course, Iowa State's third-place finish in the Big XII has sealed their first bid to the NCAA tournament since 2005.
So yeah, 2005 is a pretty significant year for Iowa State basketball for a few reasons. And it took seven years, three coaches, two athletic directors and approximately 200 players transferring, but Iowa State has finally made it back to the NCAA tournament for the first time since that season. So how did the Cyclones get to this point? How did a second-year coach with no previous coaching experience bring Iowa State back to the dance?
The obvious first answer is Fred Hoiberg's transfer strategy, which paid off better than almost any fan could have expected. By convincing the best available players he could find to spend their remaining playing time at Iowa State, Hoiberg was able to assemble a competitive Big XII squad far faster than if he had recruited players from high school. And although it seems like an obvious move in retrospect, it was considered risky at the time; mainly because assembling a team out of transfers had never really been attempted before.
Which brings up another point: Why hadn't this strategy been attempted before? Surely Fred Hoiberg wasn't the first person to think of bringing in talented players from other schools to make up his basketball team, was he? Is Iowa State's coach a goddamn genius in addition to being the dreamiest coach in the nation?
But even if Hoiberg isn't a certified genius (we'll let Mensa determine that), he took a calculated gamble in his first job as a head coach, and it paid off beautifully. Note to future coaches who may want to use this strategy, Hoiberg had some advantages working in his favor that may not work in other situations. First, as a former resident of Ames for 22 years and NBA veteran for ten years, Fred could sell the city and university to recruits like few other people could. As much as it sounds like an oxymoron, honesty matters in recruiting. When Hoiberg talks to a player and tells him he knows they can thrive in Ames and make it to the NBA, he has his own story to back it up.
Second, Hoiberg had the advantage of time. Iowa State fans are notoriously patient, almost to a fault. It took four years of utter failure for people to really get disenchanted with Greg McDermott. As maybe the most popular athlete to ever play for Iowa State, Hoiberg knew he had at least that long to field a competitive team. Even if the transfer strategy didn't work immediately, fans would give him the benefit of the doubt and let him try again. And Jaime Pollard certainly wasn't going to fire him, unless something went SERIOUSLY wrong. Pollard's the guy who gave McDermott a ten-year contract. He knows that time and patience are usually needed at Iowa State, and he was going to make sure Hoiberg got both.
Another, more overlooked point is the staff Hoiberg assembled at Iowa State. The decision to keep TJ Otzelberger on as the head recruiting assistant (now associate head coach) and Jeff Rutter as the head of basketball operations provided a bridge from the McDermott era to the new coaching regime. Keeping Otzelberger on staff also allowed Hoiberg to keep the recruiting connections that TJ had fostered over the years, as well as the recruiting class that the previous staff had assembled. This was necessary, because as an extra fuck you to Iowa State on his way out the door, Greg McDermott left the Cyclones with only three scholarship players after four years of coaching.
The hiring of Bobby Lutz was also crucial, since it gave Hoiberg something akin to an apprenticeship on the job. Bringing in a veteran head coach to be the top assistant allowed Fred to take a crash course in the ins and outs of running a collegiate program in his first year as a head coach. If Hoiberg had questions about dealing with a player or situation, he had Lutz and his 25 years of coaching experience to provide an answer. And even though Lutz was only at Iowa State for one year, his time as a mentor for Fred was likely invaluable.
Finally, Hoiberg ran into some good luck this year. Over the past five years, the Big XII conference has been the toughest conference in the nation. From 2008-2011, the Big XII's average RPI as a conference was .5743. The Big East had an average RPI over that span of .5729, the ACC's average RPI was .5714 and the Big Ten's average RPI was .5623. Over that same time period, the Big XII as a conference had the second best strength-of-schedule in the nation, second only to the Big East. For a rookie coach trying to build a program, this kind of competition is going to provide some challenges right away.
But this year, the Big XII is third in conference RPI, behind the Big Ten and the Big East; and has the fourth-most-difficult strength-of-schedule as a conference. Still a very difficult conference, and the top programs are as good as any in the country; but the top-to-bottom strength isn't the same as it's been in previous years. Traditional conference powers like Oklahoma State, Texas and Texas A&M are either incredibly young or trapped in some weird inextricable malaise. Being able to beat these teams allowed Iowa State to build some confidence and pad their conference win total while upsetting a few of the top teams in the conference.
So in the end, a combination of high-profile transfers, good staffing and a little bit of luck helped create Iowa State's best season in over a decade. The Cyclones have only had two seasons even remotely as successful as this one since the Larry Eustachy years. And while Hoiberg seems to have the team pointed in the right direction, the 2012 season has still been special for a lot of reasons, and every Cyclone fan should appreciate that now that the regular season has ended.