Iowa State's exhibition game tonight with Grand Valley State may not count in the official standings, but this is no ordinary pre-season tune up. When the action tips off tonight at 7:00 p.m., it will mark the first official showing of the Steve Prohm era in Hilton Coliseum.
It can sometimes be tough to take much away from these exhibition contests, but here are a few things to pay attention to while watching tonight.
Since being hired, Prohm has talked repeatedly about how he doesn't want to tinker too much with Iowa State's offensive attack, but he's also consistently discussed improving Iowa State on the defensive end of the floor. The Cyclones finished 71st last year in Ken Pomeroy's adjusted defensive efficiency ratings, which isn't awful, but is arguably among the biggest reasons that Iowa State didn't win the Big 12 regular season title and also fell to UAB in the NCAA Tournament.
Keep an eye on how Iowa State operates defensively on Friday night. Will Prohm continue to double-team in the post? Are the Cyclones going to continue to be soft on the perimeter? Is Abdel Nader capable of becoming an all Big 12 defensive stopper?
Without question, Iowa State's depth is the biggest concern entering the year. Deonte Burton will have to sit out first semester play due to NCAA transfer rules, meaning that the Cyclones could be awfully thin for the first nine games. Word out of the Sukup Basketball Complex after last Saturday's scrimmage against Tulane was that Prohm feels pretty good about Iowa State's top six in the rotation, but after that, minutes would appear to be up for grabs.
Presumably, Matt Thomas will be the first guy off the bench and with Naz Mitrou-Long still rehabbing from off season hip surgery, Thomas might be expected to play major minutes early on. And then it gets dicey. Hallice Cooke should be able to crack the rotation in the back court, but he's also recovering from hip surgery. Cooke will be a major factor as the season plays out, but he could have some injury-related rust to work off early on. Jordan Ashton is another possibility in the back court, despite being a walk on. Ashton averaged 16.4 points per game and knocked down 43.6% of his 3-point attempts as a sophomore at Kirkwood Community College a season ago.
In the post, Iowa State will turn to a pair of freshmen to spell Georges Niang, Jameel McKay and Abdel Nader. Both Simeon Carter and Brady Ernst committed to the Cyclones over the summer and while each guy certainly has some potential, neither has had a taste of how physical basketball is at the collegiate level. Ernst tore his ACL in February, so I would expect Carter to see the bulk of the available playing time.
As concerning as that post depth might be, it was only two years ago that Iowa State managed to get by playing what was essentially a three-man rotation inside of Melvin Ejim, Dustin Hogue and Niang. Though all three started together, Fred Hoiberg was able to implement a substitution pattern that allowed each guy to spend brief time on the bench while Iowa State played smaller line ups. Seven guys on that '13-'14 team averaged 20 minutes per game while nobody else on the roster averaged more than five minutes. Will we see a similar rotation until Burton is eligible?
The best indicator for how deep Prohm thinks this team is at this point will come in the first half of tonight's exhibition. If the game is out of hand in the second half, Prohm will rest his starters, but pay special attention to the substitutions after the under 16-minute timeout in the first half and also if any of the post players get into foul trouble.
For anyone wondering if Morris is capable of being the man, you're about to find out. Now, don't get me wrong, this is still Georges Niang's team and as Niang goes, this team will go, but Prohm has made no secret about the impact he expects from Morris.
We know about the NBA pedigree Prohm established with Isaiah Canaan and Cameron Payne at Murray State. Is Morris the next in line to become that elite-level lead guard?
In the post-season player evaluation series I published, I mentioned that for Morris to truly put himself in a position to make the leap, he'd have to show scouts that he's capable of taking over games when necessary. Morris displayed that ability last season against Oklahoma in Ames and against Texas in the Big 12 Tournament, but can he do it consistently?
Niang is no stranger to the occasional clunker and in crunch time or on the road when Iowa State needs points, can Morris do more than facilitate?
When watching Morris tonight, pay attention to isos and clear outs. Is Prohm running offense for Morris or through Morris? This may tell us a lot about Iowa State's offensive attack this season.
The one name we seem to keep hearing this pre-season is Abdel Nader. Prohm went so far as to say that Nader was Iowa State's "most consistent player" at media day. We know that the talent and ability is there, but with Nader sliding into the starting line up, is that consistency in practice going to translate to the playing floor?
Iowa State was 8-1 in games that Nader played 20 minutes or more last year and with the make up of this year's roster, he's going to be asked to do a lot. Nader is the most versatile player in Iowa State's rotation and will likely draw the assignment of guarding the opposition's best player, while also being tasked with playing both on the interior and the perimeter when Iowa State has the ball.
Nader likely won't get the press that Niang, Morris and McKay garner, but he's every bit as important to Iowa State's success.
Key in on Nader defensively tonight. If a player from the opposition gets hot, does Prohm switch Nader onto that guy? Offensively, when Niang is out of the game, pay attention to how Prohm uses Nader. Does Nader run the pick-n-roll with Morris?
Tonight's contest tips off at 7:00 p.m. and can be viewed on Cyclones.TV.