Why this year? Why this team?
Chances are, you've probably asked those very questions since the news broke. With possibly the best Iowa State team of our collective lifetimes destined for great things, why of all years did this have to be the season that the Cyclones lose such a pivotal player and leader?
Naz Mitrou-Long, or as we affectionately call him, "3SUS", missed Sunday's game against Arkansas Pine Bluff, but on Tuesday afternoon, Steve Prohm announced that given the lingering pain that Mitrou-Long continues to suffer through following off season hip surgery, he'll sit out the rest of this season and will seek a medical hardship.
We've had an opportunity to let the news sink in, but now it's time to address how this impacts this season going forward as well as Iowa State's recruiting efforts.
If there's one spot on the Iowa State roster where the Cyclones could afford to lose a starter, it was the shooting guard position. That's not a dig on Mitrou-Long, but simply a fact. Iowa State's entire bench depth to date has come in the form of Matt Thomas and Hallice Cooke, who are both shooting guards.
Thomas has been mostly excellent off the bench and will slide into the starting 5. Thomas started 15 games as a freshman and earned the start on Sunday night against Arkansas Pine Bluff, so this nothing new for him. On the year, Thomas is hitting 46.5% of his 3-point attempts and is 11-17 from deep in the last two games. Thomas has also done a great job of rebounding from the guard spot, grabbing 5 rebounds per contest. Perhaps the biggest improvement in Thomas' game, however, has been on the defensive end. Thomas showed relentless denial in the second half against Jarrod Uthoff of Iowa and is third on the team in steals.
Cooke could see a decent bump in minutes and that could be an exciting prospect for this Iowa State roster. Cooke is shooting 44% from deep and both the staff and his teammates have been practically begging him to shoot more. At 6'3" Cooke is also a long and capable on-ball defender on the perimeter and plays with great energy.
Prohm was playing 7 guys with Mitrou-Long in the line up and he'll likely continue to do so now that Deonte Burton is eligible. Burton will make his much anticipated season debut on Saturday against UNI in the Big 4 Classic in Des Moines and at 6'4" 240-lbs, he's a unique blend of freakish athleticism and bulk that will allow Prohm to play him on the wing and on occasion, inside.
Unfortunately (or fortunately depending on how you look at it), I'm not sure that Prohm will go any deeper than 7 guys in the rotation. The staff has showed that they still don't believe in Simeon Carter and while Jordan Ashton is not your average walk on, he'll likely only see time in an absolute emergency.
Prior to Tuesday's breaking news, Iowa State had one open scholarship available (though many have speculated that Cameron Lard could be an academic risk). Should Mitrou-Long be granted a medical hardship, that leaves Steve Prohm with a full roster going into the '16-'17 campaign. Here's how the scholarship chart would look:
*Ernst will be applying for a medical redshirt.
As you can see, that's an extremely guard-heavy roster. Prohm and staff were likely going to target another post player to fill out the roster, but assuming there are no changes, next year's team could be awfully inexperienced inside.
Malou figures to be an immediate contributor, but the remainder of the front court certainly doesn't inspire confidence. Simeon Carter has struggled to see the floor early into his freshman campaign and Ernst, though not fully healthy, didn't look like much more than a warm body in his limited minutes.
Solomon Young is an explosive athlete and an effort guy, but you can never fully know how that skill set will transfer to major college basketball. There's not much out there as far as film on Lard goes, but as previously mentioned, there are rumors about whether or not he'll be eligible.
Frankly, it's not an ideal roster and while Iowa State would have one of the most talented and deepest back courts in the country, they would potentially get destroyed on the interior and would possibly have to start a 4-guard line up.
Now, there were silly rumors circulating that Mitrou-Long might be seeking a possible graduate-transfer option, but knowing the type of leader Mitrou-Long is, I'd say the chances of that happening are next to none. At this point, I wouldn't bet on Lard making it to campus and there's always the possibility that Monte Morris could declare for the NBA draft, meaning that the roster above could possibly be far from set in stone.
I would guess that finding a turn-key post player will be the staff's sole focus going forward and I imagine they'll have at least one spot to fill.
You can't understate what the loss of Mitrou-Long does to this Iowa State team. He's an impassioned senior leader with a career of big shots on his resume and this Cyclone team simply isn't as good with him on the sidelines. But do we need to readjust the season goals? Is it still reasonable to expect Iowa State to challenge Kansas for the regular season Big 12 title? Are the Cyclones still a Final Four contender?
I wouldn't quite shovel dirt on this season yet. Iowa State still has one of the best starting fives in the country and has two elite players leading the way in Georges Niang and Monte Morris. There's also Jameel McKay, who's playing inspired basketball thus far and averaging a double-double. I'm not sure that there are many teams with a better top 3 than the Cyclones and really, a trio that good can carry you pretty far. Look no further than the '13-'14 Cyclones for proof.
And speaking of the '13-'14 squad, that has to be the blueprint this team follows going forward. We often forget just how thin that team was. Fred Hoiberg effectively played 3 post players in Niang, Melvin Ejim and Dustin Hogue and routinely played no more than 7 players on any given night. Percy Gibson fell out of the rotation early and Daniel Edozie had 12 DNPs and played only 7 minutes in the Sweet 16 match up against UConn.
The point is, this is still an immensely talented roster and if Thomas continues to play with the confidence he's shown recently, everything is still on the table. I'll also be very curious to see what type of impact Burton has. I'm not expecting much more than about 15 minutes early on, but this was a top 50 player coming out of high school and his size and skill set could create some fascinating flexibility and versatility for this roster.