Just in case you hadn't noticed, we are less than one month away from Iowa State's exhibition opener against Augustana (South Dakota) and a little more than 30 days from the Cyclones' first real action on November 10th against UNC-Wilmington.
During the next month, I'll be writing about Iowa State's roster, breaking down each player on the team and each position on the floor and will then move to previewing the Big 12 and talking about broader topics including the non-conference schedule, recruiting and the awesomeness that is Fred Hoiberg. Think of this paragraph as a syllabus of sorts and make sure to check in from time to time in order to get you all the information you'll need for the final exam on November 10th.
We're starting off today by looking at arguably the most important position on the team going into 2013-2014; the point guards
This is a deep and talented group, featuring versatile playmakers and varying levels of experience. The point guard picture is a little more murky than it was going into last season when Korie Lucious was the unquestioned floor general. Instead, this year's team brings together a senior transfer who will be seeing his first Big 12 action in DeAndre Kane, a talented, yet unproven sophomore in Naz Long, and a 4-star freshman who was is the reigning Mr. Basketball in the state of Michigan in Monte Morris.
There could have been a fourth horseman in Bubu Palo had he not been dismissed from the team due to the rules infraction and decision handed down by Iowa State president, Steven Leath. Palo would have been a fifth-year senior and many believe that he was in the running for the starting job prior to his dismissal. Although never an impact player, Palo brought a steady game to the floor, rarely turning the ball over and contributing big minutes off the bench over the last three seasons. There's two ways to look at the Palo situation; 1) The point guard situation could be unsettled to begin the year and that might lead to a few unexpected losses, or 2) With no Palo in the way, the young, but talented duo of Long and Morris could seize the opportunity and become the scoring weapon that Palo never would have been able to.
I don't know who will win this job, nor do I know that Palo was assured a starting position anyway, but I do know that regardless of how you feel about Palo (and he always drew a vocal reaction), the back court depth on this team is not as good as it could have been with Palo in a Cyclone uniform.
There's a lot to like about this trio and while I fully expect a point guard by committee, I do think we'll see serious growth out of Long and potential out of Morris that will compliment the crunch-time moxy of Kane. Starting with Kane, he mentioned that when he was brought in, Hoiberg told him he'd have every opportunity to be the featured ball handler and the offense would be run through him. That should be a position of comfort for Kane as he was leaned on heavily the last three years by Marshall. Primarily more of two-guard, Kane frequently handled the ball in end-of-game scenarios and showed both an ability to score from the perimeter (15.1 PPG as a junior) and distribute the rock (7.0 APG as a junior). Kane is not a traditional point guard, but excels in breaking down his opponents outside and taking the ball to the rack. His size (6'4") allows him to out-physical smaller guards, but also mix it up under the basket (5.1 rebounds per game in three seasons at Marshall).
Kane will need help from time to time, however, and that's where Long and Morris come in. Each are cut in more of the traditional point guard mold and Long saw stretches of action as a freshman, but with mixed results. Having seen Long in the Capitol City League, he looks much more developed physically and whispers are coming out of the Iowa State camp that he could be a major factor on this year's team. CBS Sports' Jon Rothstein had this to say about Long recently:
- I'm hearing Iowa State sophomore guard Naz Long has looked strong early on in practice. The Cyclones' staff believes Long could fill a "Chris Babb-type role" for this team during the upcoming season. Babb wasn't a great ball handler, but he made open shots and was a terrific perimeter defender. Iowa State is hoping Long will exude the same qualities moving forward.
Okay, so that doesn't talk about Long being a featured point guard, but it shows that the 6'4" Long should have a strong impact in this year's rotation and could be used as combo guard to pair with Kane on the outside.
The final piece of the point guard puzzle could be the most intriguing. I took in several of Monte Morris' CCL games and came away impressed with his natural ability. He has the look of a future star and was one of the more impressive freshman guards that I've seen in CCL action. He's thin and could benefit from a year or two in the weight room, but he's got game. Morris will likely start the season toward the end of the bench, earning table scrap minutes here and there, but don't be surprised if he's elevated himself into the main rotation by the end of the year. This is a young man to keep an eye on for the future.
Unfortunately, I don't see a guy like Lucious or Diante Garrett in this group. By that, I mean that there likely isn't the guy on this roster. A guy who can run the show for 35 minutes with minimal turnovers and do it night in and night out. Kane should be able to handle that in stretches, but he's better suited to the combo guard role and will need help from time to time. I like the potential that Long and Morris have, but Long was mostly a non-factor on last year's team and Morris will be seeing his first collegiate action. Both have a lot to prove.
Another area that's of some concern is the outside shooting acumen of this group. Although it took him a while to find his stroke, Lucious finished last season as one of Iowa State's best shooters down the stretch, knocking down 38% of his threes in conference play after getting off to an abysmal start. Kane's career best shooting clip from outside was 31.8% and that came as a freshman and he's actually regressed each year, bottoming out at 24.8% last year.
Long has a good stroke, but only attempted 18 3's a season ago, hitting on only five (27.8%). Morris comes to Ames with a reputation as a slasher with a good mid-range game, but his ability to hit the outside shot is must in Hoiberg's offensive system.
Relative Big 12 Strength
Compared to the rest of the conference, I see Iowa State's point guard situation as above average, but a step below the top end of the league. With Naadir Tharpe leading the show at Kansas and Marcus Smart doing Marcus Smart things in Stillwater, it's easy to see why the Cyclone point guard play won't be among the league's elite. If a true #1 can emerge however, I'd put the likes of Kane or Long up against the rest of the league and feel pretty good about what Fred Hoiberg has in his stable.
As I mentioned earlier, this year's point guard play is going to look different and to start the season at least, these three are going to be jockeying for minutes and to earn The Mayor's trust. Kane is a sure-thing starter going into the year and will get his chance, but I think Naz Long is too good and too versatile to keep out of the line up and will be the featured ball handler going into conference play. Morris is the wild card. He's too good to redshirt and will have to adjust to the college game, but at some point this year, he's going to bring a spark to the Iowa State offense and show us glimpses of what's in store for the future.