Show of hands here; who had Iowa State getting out to a 4-0 start? Anyone? Anybody? If your hand is up right now, put it down. You're a liar and plus, you look silly. The fact is, with early season tests against a top ten Michigan team and an extremely difficult road challenge at BYU, coupled with the fact that Iowa State was bringing somewhat of a patchwork roster into the season, I think most of us expected an "L" or two.
But alas, The Mayor has shown us yet again why he is in fact the Mayor and here the Cyclones sit, undefeated, nationally ranked and on their way to what looks like a third consecutive NCAA tournament appearance. It would appear as if the time has come to stop being surprised by the success and start asking, just how good is this year's team and to what heights can this program be taken in the future. Let's start first with this year's team by looking at its potential, but also by piecing together how they got here.
Some Assembly Required
It's rare that you find a team that doesn't experience some type of roster turnover from year-to-year in college basketball. The one-and-done era, widespread transferring and the graduation of seniors makes the challenge of building a team an ongoing process and Fred Hoiberg has done a masterful job of it since taking over Iowa State's program in 2010.
Hoiberg has said repeatedly that his blueprint for success in Ames wasn't exactly defined or detailed, but that it simply involved getting the best possible talent to campus, whether that be through the prep ranks, transfers or whatever. This year's team might be Hoiberg's greatest achievement yet. While not necessarily as talented as the two previous teams (and I think that could become a debatable subject soon), Hoiberg has put together what looks like the perfect blend for success in 2013-2014.
Of Iowa State's 13 scholarship athletes, 8 have always been Cyclones, coming to Ames directly from high school (I'm including Bubu Palo in that number as he technically counts against Iowa State's scholarship count for this season). Three of these Cyclones have come to Ames from junior college and two members of the team are traditional transfers, including Abdel Nader who is sitting out this season. There's also Jameel McKay, who recently joined Iowa State after transferring from Marquette, but is paying his own way this year before going on scholarship for his final two years of eligibility, starting with 2014-2015.
Now consider this. In the last two years alone, Iowa State either lost or parted ways with the following players, including Royce White, who would be a senior this year, Maurice Jones, a transfer from USC who was not granted eligibility after an academic violation during his time with the Trojans, Richard Amardi, who signed with Iowa State, but had his offer pulled when Iowa State brought in DeAndre Kane and the aforementioned, Palo, who was dismissed from the team prior to the season from an alleged sexual assault that occurred in 2012 in which the charges were dropped, but still violated Iowa State's student-athlete code of conduct according to Iowa State president, Steven Leath. This isn't even accounting for the following players who've transferred from Iowa State since Hoiberg took over. That list includes Jordan Railey, Eric McKnight, Calvin Godfrey, Tavon Sledge and Kerwin Okoro, all of whom would have still had enough eligibility left to play on this year's team. That's nine athletes that could of been playing on this year's team alone.
So what does Hoiberg do? For starters, he continues to bring in talented freshmen, landing consensus four-stars Matt Thomas and Monte Morris for this years team, joining Georges Niang who was a four-star prospect himself, but also identifying solid high school prospects like Melvin Ejim and Naz Long who've developed into better than expected ball players and are also guys that will stick with the program. Into that mix, Hoiberg turns to the JuCo ranks to sprinkle in some stabilizing experience with guys like Dustin Hogue and Daniel Edozie. With the team taking shape, Hoiberg patiently waits for the spring transfers to surface and plucks a game changer in DeAndre Kane that brings it all together.
Putting a team together isn't an exact science and every school has their advantages and challenges. Few do a better job than Hoiberg though when it comes to overcoming those challenges and consistently putting a competitive team on the floor.
So Just How Good Is This Team?
You hate to get carried away, but with the back-to-back wins over #7 Michigan and BYU, it's hard not to. You could argue that the two most difficult games on the non-conference schedule have already been played, which is not a slight against Iowa, but a true road game at a place like BYU will always make for a difficult task. In any event, Iowa State still has to navigate the remainder of this non-conference schedule and that's not going to be a breeze. The match up against UNI in Des Moines won't be a walk in the park. The Panthers hold a three-game winning streak over Iowa State.
There's also the Diamond Head Classic, which includes Akron, Boise State and St. Mary's, who all made the NCAA tournament last year. Iowa State will play the always tough George Mason in the first game and if all goes according to plan, would likely match up with Boise State in the final. The Broncos might be the favorites in the quality Mountain West.
And then of course there's the game against Iowa. The Hawkeyes have several challenges of their own prior to their December 13th trip to Ames, but this could be the first time in a long time where both teams come into the match up ranked. We'll talk more about that game as it gets closer.
Regardless, Iowa State can't just coast until conference season. A loss or two might still be sitting out there and if Iowa State isn't careful, a third loss might be out there as well. In any event, as of today, I would give Iowa State the edge over Iowa and UNI and would likely tab the Cyclones as the favorites going into the Diamond Head Classic. Still, this team will probably drop a game prior to Big 12 play, but it's tough to really say where and against whom.
If the Cyclones can hold to form, they should still enter conference play ranked and with no more than two losses. From there, it's all about taking care of business against the lower half of the conference and holding serve at home.
In case you haven't noticed, Kansas and Oklahoma State are really good. I don't think Iowa State's on that level, but can you really say that ISU won't pick off one or both of them in Hilton? If Iowa State is really going to pose a threat, though, it's going to have to sweep the bottom of the Big 12. There can't be any losses in Lubbock or Austin or even Manhattan this year. Still, will Iowa State win the conference this season? Probably not, but the goal going forward if that isn't a realistic possibility has to be about improving seeding. The last two years, Iowa State was good enough to play in the Sweet 16, but unfortunately ran into the eventual national champs in Kentucky and a very good Ohio State team that made it to the Elite 8. You don't have to be Joe Lunardi to know that the better your seed, the better chance you have to make it deep into the tournament.
The Final Verdict
At this point, Fred Hoiberg and the rest of the team will toe the company line and talk about just winning the next one, but this team will start to see the big picture as the season wears on. With the strength of the non-conference schedule and the possibility of stealing a win or two against nationally ranked teams like Kansas, Oklahoma State and Baylor, ISU has to be thinking a top 3 finish in conference and at least 6-seed come March. Does that make this Hoiberg's best team yet? I guess if the season plays out that way, you can't really rule it out.
The only two things holding this team back as far as I'm concerned are post depth and consistent outside shooting. Daniel Edozie might be the solution to the former and if Matt Thomas can show a little more consistency and Naz Long can continue to stroke it, the latter might not be an issue either. This team is close to being fairly complete. They're tough as nails, play their asses off on both ends and have already shown more grit than last years team ever did. I'm not ruling out that this might be Hoiberg's most complete team, but whether it can be his best, we'll see.