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MYTHBUSTERS: "The Right Way"

Correcting the fallacy that Fred Hoiberg built his team incorrectly.

People often talk about the "right way" to build a basketball program. Ever since Fred Hoiberg took over what remained of Iowa State's basketball program in 2010, Hoiberg and Iowa State have caught a fair amount of flack for not rebuilding ISU's program the right way. True, most of this flack seems to be coming from the eastern side of the state, but surely that's just a coincidence, right?

The assumption is that because Fred Hoiberg used transfers from other schools to improve Iowa State's talent level immediately, this strategy is flawed, and Iowa State is doing things "the wrong way." Because Fred Hoiberg recruited seven players who transferred from their initial school over the last three years, his approach to building his team is unsound.

But what does the right way even mean? No one's ever really defined it and it's a pretty nebulous concept, seemingly held in some kind of fuzzy nostalgia for the way things used to be. Generally, the right way seems to consist of three things:

  • Coaches should recruit and and build their team with high school players.
  • This team should include a decent number of in-state or regional recruits to keep a school's local identity.
  • The aforementioned high school players should stay in school a minimum of three years.

These three factors apparently indicate when your college team is doing things the right way, meaning the way things have traditionally been done. This way leads to championships and leads to young men getting their college degrees. No one can argue against championships or college degrees. Those are both great things,

But this is basketball, where victory generally goes to the innovators. Tex Winters had the triangle offense, Bob Knight had the motion offense, John Wooden had Sam Gilbert, and Fred Hoiberg has the transfer experiment. True, this isn't an offensive or defensive philosophy, but it is an innovative coaching strategy nevertheless.

As KnowDan pointed out in his excellent article earlier this week, after three years the transfer experiment has to be considered an unqualified success. Just look at where Iowa State was in 2010: A coach who seemingly exemplified "the right way" of building a college program had thankfully exited campus for the more hospitable Missouri Valley surroundings at Creighton. Greg McDermott's system was predicated on keeping players in school for an extended period of time so they could gel as a team and learn his massive playbook. That didn't happen, as players transferred from ISU in ever more numerous droves and his teams got seemingly worse each year McDermott was at Iowa State.

Fred Hoiberg inherited a team with three returning scholarship players: Scott Christopherson, Diante Garrett and Jamie Vanderbeken. He had three promising incoming freshmen: Melvin Ejim, Calvin Godfrey and Eric McKnight. Jordan Railey was... Jordan Railey was there, too.

That's it. That's what Hoiberg had to work with in his first season as a head coach. Two seniors, a junior, four freshmen and a handful of walk-ons. That's not a basketball team, that's a season of The Real World: Ames.

So much in the same way that Pollard risked his reputation and job security when he hired a head coach with no coaching experience, Fred Hoiberg made an equally risky decision to stake his future on seven transfers from other schools. Five players from other schools were recruited in his initial season, an unprecedented number in the somewhat more milquetoast days of 2010.

  • Darion "Jake" Anderson was eligible to play immediately after transferring after his senior season at Northern Illinois. His transfer meant that ISU could at least field an eight-man rotation in Hoiberg's first season as coach, and Uncle Jake provided a much needed leadership role in his only year in Ames.
  • Chris Allen had a rocky past, transferring from Michigan State after being kicked off the basketball team for undisclosed reasons. A bit of scandal associated with Allen, but smart coaches don't turn down talent that can shoot like Chris Allen.
  • Chris Babb officially transferred to "be closer to home," but he likely just wanted out of the dumpster fire of Penn State basketball and to be able to play for a coach that wouldn't be fired in a year.
  • Anthony Booker, the gentle giant, never really found his place at Southern Illinois. Booker found a more welcoming home at Iowa State, if not more playing time.
  • Royce White, the star and the enigma was the highest profile transfer that first year. White's problems at Minnesota were well publicized, and his transfer was perceived to be the riskiest by far. If White played up to his potential and stayed out of trouble, ISU could be a contender. If not... Fred Hoiberg's coaching career might have been over before it really got a chance to start.
Iowa State didn't win an awful lot in Fred Hoiberg's first year back in Ames, but the team was more competitive than it had been in years. And with reports leaking out of practice describing how badly the scout team of transfers were beating the active squad, expectations were high for the '11-'12 season. That year saw Iowa State return to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2005, and two more highly touted transfers join the team.
  • Will Clyburn was recruited by Iowa State out of high school, but grades ultimately forced him to attend junior college. From there Clyburn transferred to Utah. When Utes' coach Jim Boylen was fired in 2011, Clyburn finished a very circuitous path to Iowa State.
  • Korie Lucious was another slightly damaged recruit from Michigan State that found a soft landing spot with the Cyclones. Iowa State basketball: Michigan State's outlet store.

And that might be the biggest misperception about Fred Hoiberg's transfer experiment. People hear "transfer" and they assume that the player was kicked off their former team, ran into legal trouble, didn't make grades, etc. Building a team with these players is assuredly considered to be doing things "the wrong way."

But out of the seven transfers in the last three years, only three had any kind of problem at their former school. Most simply made the wrong choice out of high school and needed a new place to play basketball. And that's probably Hoiberg's greatest innovation at Iowa State, the thing that's allowed him to be so successful in such a short amount of time. Hoiberg recognized the landscape of college basketball was changing, and more and more players were transferring each year. Iowa State fans knew this new reality all too well, after witnessing the flood of players leaving ISU in the McDermott era.

Fred Hoiberg realized he couldn't build a winner right away by doing things "the right way," the traditional route of recruiting high school athletes. But he could take advantage of college basketball's new reality and create a team based around highly-skilled transfers from other schools. His staff would just need to do their due diligence and vet each player to make sure their weren't character issues that could potentially blow up his team.

And it worked. The transfer experiment worked, despite numerous obstacles and naysayers, including plenty of doubters in the Iowa State fanbase. Fred Hoiberg hasn't built his basketball program in the expected fashion, and that's upset some traditionalists. But this is Iowa State, a school where the odds are stacked against its athletic programs like few other places in the country. To build a winner in Ames, the non-traditional way is the only way that works sometimes.