A few weeks back, WRNL contributor, PermRed, provided us with a sneak peek into next year's Cyclones. This was prior to Iowa State's Big 12 tournament championship run and prior to advancing to the Sweet 16. PermRed's piece and the ensuing post-season success by Iowa State gave credence to a prevailing question that had been circulating for some time; could Iowa State really be better next year?
Since the conclusion of the season, that question and the natural debate that comes with it has been the hottest topic across the Cyclone-slanted corners of the Internet. Chris Williams of Cyclone Fanantic has entertained the idea, as has the calloused curmudgeon of the Iowa State beat for The Des Moines Register, Randy Peterson.
It's a valid question that deserves its time in the offseason doldrums yet to come, but the question can't possibly be answered at this point without sprouting a series of hypotheticals, chief among them being, just how does Iowa State fill its remaining scholarships?
With two open scholarships (at least), Fred Hoiberg and staff are jetsetting around the country, courting the best available prospects in the hopes of landing the future difference makers of Cyclone basketball. Being that we're in the midst of "transfer season," one would think that The Mayor's only regret is that he has just two tags to fill.
But that begs yet another question; what exactly does next year's team need and just how much of it does it need? Next year's Iowa State roster will feature seven players who've started a game as a Cyclone and with the addition of Northern Illinois transfer, Abdel Nader, eight players who've started at the Division 1 level. That type of depth and experience, combined with the expected instant impacts of Jameel McKay and Clayton Custer would seem to suggest that Hoiberg should have more than enough talent to play with. If Hoiberg decides to bank those scholarships or pursue a traditional transfer or two that won't be eligible until the 2015-2016 season, Iowa State will still be in excellent shape for next year. Or will they?
Assessing the Back Court
Who's Gone: DeAndre Kane
You don't replace a guy like DeAndre Kane. You just don't. Statistically, he was in a category all by himself, posting a 17-6-6 on a nightly basis. From a leadership standpoint, we've read stories all year about his fire, his passion and how he served as a mentor in the locker room. All of this packed into a 6'4" 210-pound grown man that didn't even enter the fray until June, yet found a way to seamlessly fit in while not disrupting the team chemistry. That's not just rare, that's stumbling on a winning lottery ticket and while you're on your way to cash it, coming across a stranded Kate Upton on the side of the road, who just so happens to be in need of a ride.
Even with the loss of Kane and his production, it's not as if that void can't and won't be filled. Leading the charge will be Monte Morris, who we saw step up late in the year as he provided a glimpse into the future, hitting at least double figures in scoring in each of Iowa State's three NCAA tournament games. Morris averaged 13.3 points during the Cyclones' run on 54.1% shooting from the floor, including 6-7 from three-point range and a perfect 8-8 from the free throw line. Prior to the tournament, Morris had shown that he can take care of the ball (nearly 5:1 assist-to-turnover ratio) and play lock down perimeter defense (46 steals led team), but it remained to be seen if he could generate his own offense. Morris has the look of a future star, and by future, I mean a not so distant future, like as in right off the bat next season.
Flanking Morris on the perimeter will be Long, Thomas and possibly Dorsey-Walker. Long had somewhat of a bizarre year, getting off to a hot start (and earning the 3SUS moniker in the process), to falling completely off the map, to coming on late as a mega-clutch, long-range sniper. On the year, Long averaged just over seven points per game and shot 40% from deep, leading the team in made threes with 64 overall. It's tough to project whether or not Long can ever become more than a sharp shooter, but with his uber-quick release, I don't know that he really needs to expand his offensive game. He doesn't need much space at all to get off his shots and a good portion of his looks were well beyond the line, so range isn't an issue either. If there's one area that I'd love to see Long improve, it's in the ball handling department. He only had 16 turnovers on the year, but got a little loose with it at times and didn't appear to be as confident toting the rock as you'd expect from someone who was recruited as a point guard.
As for Thomas, what else can you say except for that he looked and played like a freshman. He scored in double figures in five of his first six games, but then fell into a funk that he never really came out of. It looked like he was coming around when he knocked down four treys in the first half against Kansas State back in January, but the consistency never came and he struggled to ever really find a rhythm offensively. Thomas was solid in other aspects of the game, showing that he was a competent ball handler and passer (40 assists to just 17 turnovers) and he grew as a defender over the course of the year. Of all the returning players on the roster, I feel that Thomas not only as the most room to grow, but also the most ability to grow. Some guys are able to make marginal gains over the course of their careers, but with as pure of a stroke as Thomas has and with his basketball intelligence, I still think he can be a special player. I won't be one bit surprised if he averages double figures next year
Finally, there's Dorsey-Walker, who secured his place in message board lore with his 67-point explosion in a Capitol City League game last summer. I was there that night and was awestruck by Dorsey-Walker's display and was almost convinced that he'd start opposite Kane come last November. Alas, it never came to be and Dorsey-Walker toiled away on the bench most of the season, only seeing spot time in 20 games. Just on the outside of being a 4-star recruit out of high school, there's potential in Dorsey-Walker and at 6'4", he's got ideal size for a traditional 2-guard. I really expected him to see more time this year and thought he was serviceable enough when he did play, but we don't know what goes on in practice and Hoiberg must have never seen enough to play him over Long or Thomas. I want to believe that he can be an impact scorer at this level because I've seen him score with ease in summer league action, but whether or not it ever happens is anyone's guess.
Who's New: Clayton Custer
Custer comes to Ames with a winning pedigree. He scrapped his way to back-to-back state championships, using a working-class array of skills. He's your every day gamer, relying on hustle and grit to succeed.
Okay, enough with the Dan Dakich wet dream. Custer, by all accounts is a talented guard and could carve out a niche in next year's rotation. If he can spell Morris as a back up point guard while also showing a knack for knocking down timely threes, he'll play plenty. If he struggles to adjust to the size and speed of the college game, he won't. Simplistic, sure, but it's almost impossible to project how Custer will acclimate to the next level. Based on everything I've seen though, I think he can help next year's team.
Who's Needed: Bryce Dejean-Jones...maybe
It was announced on Wednesday that Dejean-Jones would be visiting Iowa State this April. The UNLV transfer would fill an immediate need as a replacement for Kane. He can manufacture shots, distribute the ball and attack the rim. From a pure basketball sense, adding a guy like Dejean-Jones would thrust Iowa State into pre-season top ten rankings and make the Cyclones a legit contender to end Kansas' reign atop the Big 12.
But, there's baggage...a lot of it. Dejean-Jones played at USC as a freshman and had an ugly exit with the Trojans as stories began to surface that he was less than a model teammate in Los Angeles. Similarly, the 6'5" guard was rumored to have been a team cancer while at UNLV and may have worn out his welcome with the Runnin' Rebs.
We know that Fred Hoiberg has undertaken these types of projects in the past with nothing but success to show for it, but one has to wonder if The Mayor is biting off more than he cares to chew by showing interest in Dejean-Jones. Then again, the exact same things were said about Royce White, Chris Allen, Korie Lucious and DeAndre Kane.
The vetting process is proven at this point and Hoiberg has given us no reason to question his judgement, so if Dejean-Jones decides to come to Ames, both he and Hoiberg will have earned the benefit of the doubt. Stay tuned.
Assessing the Front Court
Who's Gone: Melvin Ejim
Ejim has arguably been the backbone and foundation of the Hoiberg era on the court and in the locker room. Not only does Iowa State lose a nightly doudble-double threat, but also a guy who's been in the line up every single game for the last four years (minus the two games he missed due to injury earlier this year). Ejim's production can be replaced, but who steps in to fill that leadership void?
You could argue that despite the efforts of Ejim and Kane, this year's team may have belonged on the shoulders of Niang. Think about this; with the Big 12 player of the year on one side and an all-American on the other, it was Niang who earned the nickname, "The Closer" this season. When Iowa State needed a bucket in crunch time, you could almost guarantee that the possession was going through Niang's hands. Offensively, he's one of the more unique players in the country and there's little doubt who will lead the Cyclones this upcoming season. After his freshman season, I said that I thought Niang would lead the Big 12 in scoring at least once before his career was over and he's got an excellent shot to hit that mark next year. Much has been made about whether or not Custer can provide back up point guard minutes next year, but the way I see, Iowa State is already in excellent shape when it comes to facilitating the offense as Niang is more than capable of stepping in and working his magic with the ball.
Losing Ejim isn't as big of blow due to the surprising play of Hogue. The senior to be burst onto the scene early in the year and never let down. Hogue averaged 11.6 points per game while pulling down a team-leading (tied with Ejim) 8.4 rebounds per contest. He saved his best basketball for the end of the year, scoring in double figures in all six of Iowa State's post season games, capped off by a 34-point night against UConn in the Sweet 16. Originally thought to be just a role player, Hogue proved to be an above-average defender, capable of checking anyone from 6'4" to 6'9" and showed an unexpected offensive touch. Hogue has some work to do with his jumper, but you can do a lot worse than 34.4% (22-64) from outside. He could be on the verge of turning in a monster senior season.
Daniel Edozie has a role on this team, which is more than you can really say about Percy Gibson at this point. Having watched Edozie play last summer, I thought he'd be better served by redshirting because there was no way he was getting on the court. Sure enough, it was Edozie, not Gibson that earned those spare minutes when Ejim or Niang got into foul trouble or after Niang went down. Edozie didn't do anything particularly special, but rebounded well enough, ate up fouls and showed that he could even possibly earn a few more minutes this upcoming season.
Gibson on the other hand is all but a lost cause at this point and that's really a shame. As a freshman, he looked like he was going to develop into a consistent low-post scorer, but he's simply never gotten better and his minutes have dwindled as a result. I'd love for him to salvage what's left of his eligibility, but I'm not going to count on it.
Who's New: Jameel McKay and Abdel Nader
Who's Needed: Good question
Iowa State showed interest in 6'9" Temple transfer, Anthony Lee, but with as many as six post players already in the rotation and a coach who's not afraid to play small-ball, it just wasn't the right fit for Lee. Selfishly, I wanted him to help bide the time that Iowa State has to play without McKay, but the Cyclones should be able to weather those 10-12 games.
Truth be told, next year's team doesn't necessarily have an immediate need in the post. With all six post players being upper classmen, however, Hoiberg knows he's going to have to address the issue in the not so distant future. Ideally, Iowa State will find a transfer that sits this season and will have at least two years of eligibility starting in 2015-2016. My guess is that if Hoiberg does go after a forward, this will be the route he'll go as the high school market is all but dried up this late in the spring.
The point of this piece is to really examine if Iowa State can or will be better than they were this year. Think about what exactly that would mean for a moment. Iowa State went 28-8 this year, spent almost the entire season in the top 25, won the Big 12 tournament, made it to the Sweet 16 and had Niang not fractured a bone in his foot, Iowa State still could be playing. Yet here we are, asking if next year's team could be better. The crazy thing is that it's not an absurd question to ask.
As this team is, they're going to be very good. This is a top 15-20 team that can challenge Kansas in the Big 12, but I can't help but wonder if they're not one piece away, which is what makes Dejean-Jones all the more intriguing. I think Morris will be a breakout performer as a sophomore, but needs about another 20 pounds on his frame to be able to consistently take the punishment that comes with attacking the basket. Neither Long nor Thomas can play that type of game and while Dorsey-Walker is capable, it might be asking a bit much of him to go from "DNPs" to 20-25 minutes a night.
Getting a guard with some size that can create his own looks really is the only hole that next year's team has at this point. Dejean-Jones isn't and won't be the only guard that the staff will contact, however. Ian Chiles of IUPUI is just an example of another guy that could be in play. Although only 6'1", he averaged 15.8 points last year and will be immediately eligible as well. I'm sure there will be even more of these guys who's names surface in the coming weeks and all are in play. Should Iowa State land another scorer on the perimeter, then the answer is "yes", next year's team can most certainly be better.