So I'm going to break format with Iowa State's preview. By this point, we've said about all there is to say about this team, but here's five reasons why I think Iowa State will finish 4th in the Big 12.
1. The Mayor
Gotta start at the top. In only three years, Fred Hoiberg has become one of the hottest names in coaching both on the college and professional level. While most would say that Hoiberg's greatest strength as a coach is his offensive approach and creativity, I'm actually going to say its his ability to adapt to each year's roster. Now, the head coach is ultimately responsible for how that roster is constructed, but as we've seen in Iowa State's case, Hoiberg is able to build a roster both for the future and for right now. So with so many new faces lacing it up for Iowa State this year, it's not necessarily the concern it might be for other programs. He's brought together what appears to be the right mix of veterans and youth to allow Iowa State the chance to compete for a third straight NCAA tournament appearance, while knowing that a potential juggernaut could be on the horizon in 2014-2015.
2. The Big Three
The concept of having a "big three" isn't just for the NBA. In the college game, it's just as important to have a three-man core that can consistently deliver on a nightly basis. Leading that charge for Iowa State this year will be Melvin Ejim, Georges Niang and DeAndre Kane. Ejim led the Big 12 in rebounding and double-doubles a season ago and while he'll miss roughly the first month of the season with a minor knee injury, he should round into form by the time conference play rolls around, provided he doesn't have any setbacks. With Niang, Hoiberg has a versatile big man at his disposal that can do a little bit of everything. While limited athletically, Niang can do just about everything else. He's a threat from both inside and out, can handle the ball and pass, and showed as a freshman that he can play at his best when the lights are brightest. With Kane, The Mayor has his playmaker. Some have called him a "beast". Others have said he's a "grown-ass man". I've even heard "hard-ass mother-fucker". All fit. Kane's game isn't always pretty, but the guy can absolutely play and isn't afraid to mix it up with anyone.
3. How 'Bout Those Youngsters
The Cyclones lost a ton of firepower from last year's team. Replacing the likes of Will Clyburn, Tyrus McGee, Chris Babb and Korie Lucious won't be easy, but in Matt Thomas and Monte Morris, Iowa State has dynamic talent ready to step in. Thomas has been described as one of the best shooters in the class of 2013 and after having watched him in the CCL and last Sunday's exhibition, I can't say I disagree. He has a flawless stroke and can absolutely fill it up. Morris is a guy that I always liked long term, but have been blown away with thus far. From the sounds of it, Hoiberg and the Iowa State staff have been just as impressed with Morris as everyone else. The promising start to Morris' career bodes well for Iowa State's back court depth and gives Hoiberg yet another guy to throw into what should be a versatile rotation.
4. The Support Staff
Guys like Naz Long, Percy Gibson and Dustin Hogue likely won't get as much ink as other guys on this team, but they will play a crucial role in Iowa State's success this season. As a freshman, Long just wasn't ready and he fell out of the rotation because of it. Fast forward to now and the difference is night and day. Long has bulked up, bought into his role as a defensive stopper and will look to do his best Chris Babb impersonation going forward. He'll have his work cut out for him, but I think Long has a bright future in front of him.
Inside, Hoiberg will use Gibson and Hogue to spell Ejim and Niang and both bring different talents to the table. Hogue, as many have said, is a similar player to Ejim, but could be a little better with the ball in his hands offensively. Gibson's sophomore struggles were well-documented, but I thought he showed exactly what he needed to in Sunday's exhibition. If Gibson can buy into being the inside enforcer off the bench, Iowa State will be awfully tough to beat. He has the touch and has shown he can be a force, but it's all about effort and playing smart.
Other guys that could make an occasional impact include K.J. Bluford, Daniel Edozie and my sleeper pick for secret weapon off the bench, Sherron Dorsey-Walker.
5. The Big 12
Kansas is a national title contender. Oklahoma State is Final Four good. Baylor has top 15 talent. After that, the drop off begins. With a healthy Ejim in the line up, I have no doubt that Iowa State will be dancing again, but Kansas State lost a little too much in the offseason and West Virginia, while talented, might be a year away. Oklahoma looks NIT-bound at best and Texas, Texas Tech and TCU are going to fast-forward to national signing day and then spring football, pretending that basketball season didn't even happen. The point I'm trying to make is that who else is going to step and challenge Iowa State for 4th?