2011-2012 Record: 23-11, 12-6
I already posted a more comprehensive preview here, so I'm not going to go as in depth in this feature, but I will touch on a few things.
Hilton Magic was restored last year as Iowa State went 16-2 at home and 8-1 in conference play, which featured top ten wins over #5 Kansas and #9 Baylor. Expect more of the same in year number three of the Fred Hoiberg era. A record number of season tickets has already been sold and the excitement and anticipation surrounding this upcoming season has Cyclone fans longing for the return of basketball.
Iowa State will also be in the hunt for back-to-back NCAA tournaments, something that hasn't happened since the '99-'00 and '00-'01 seasons. Also, for the second consecutive year, when it comes to pure college basketball experience, Iowa State will again be featuring one of the most experienced rosters in the conference. Seniors Babb, McGee, Booker, Clyburn and Lucious all began their collegiate careers elsewhere, but have joined forces in Ames and don't be surprised to see all five on the floor together at times. They'll be joined by junior Melvin Ejim, who will be entering into his third year as a starter and will also get major contributions from sophomore Percy Gibson, who even started a few games as a freshman.
The nucleus of this team skews veteran-heavy and that is one reason among many on why I'm high on this team.
Why They'll Finish 3rd
If you don't have the resources of Kentucky, Kansas, North Carolina, Duke and so on, you can't necessarily rely on a talented influx of superstar freshmen year after year. That being said, if you were to construct the ideal team to navigate a conference as tough as the Big 12 and make some noise in March, what type of players would you choose? For me, above all else, I'd want a senior point guard that has tournament experience, has flourished on the big stage and carries a certain swagger about himself. I'd also want an athletic scorer on the wing that can score both inside and outside and causes match up problems for the opposition every night. I'd surround those two with some reliable shooters, athletic forwards that attack the boards and a couple glue guys that can mix it up defensively.
Doesn't that sound a little like this Iowa State team (on paper at least)? Veteran point guard? Korie Lucious - check. Inside-outside scorer on the wing? Will Clyburn - check. Athletic forwards? Melvin Ejim, Anthony Booker and Percy Gibson - check. Shooters and defensive glue guys? Chris Babb and Tyrus McGee - check. This isn't even factoring in a couple freshmen that can make an impact. By all accounts, the coaching staff is ecstatic with the scoring ability of Niang and is high on the prospects of Long seeing some back-up minutes behind Lucious. Is this team going to win the conference? Probably not, but the talent and potential is there for another special season.
Why I Don't Know Shit
How about the negatives you say? Well, we can start with Lucious. He never really was a starter at Michigan State, playing behind Kalin Lucas and only saw starter minutes when Lucas went down with an injury. Can we be confident enough to just hand him the keys and let him go? As for Clyburn, despite all of the great things coaches and players are saying about him, this is the Big 12, not the Mountain West (Utah was a MWC member in '10-'11). How is that scoring ability going to translate to a higher level of play? Finally, there's no Royce White. The 1st-round pick led the Cyclones in points, rebounds, assists, steals and blocks as you're all well aware. How do you possibly make up for that type of loss in production?
The average fan or media pundit can look at this team and see that White is gone, along with veteran scorers Christopherson and Allen, and easily point toward a fall-back year. What they may not see though, is a team that will be drastically better on the defensive end of the floor and will be much faster and more aggressive in their run-out and fast break opportunities. Iowa State ranked 7th in the Big 12 in scoring defense last year in large part because they weren't equipped to defend a variety of different lineups. This year's team has more flexibility and versatility in that department and will employ traditional lineups, but will also go small on occasion to harass opponents in the half-court. Keep an eye on tempo and pace of play as well. Things ran well with the ball in White's hands, but they also ran slowly and methodical. Iowa State couldn't run with teams like Missouri in large part because there wasn't a quick guard to lead the show. These are things that are changing for the better.