Every March, when the brackets are revealed, the experts share their predictions for the Final Four, Cinderella runs and the breakout stars of the tournament. The experts (read: out-of-work coaches) are guided by a short list of cliches, and at the top of that list: strong guard play and senior leadership are what separate the good teams from the great ones.
All of that CBS studio folk wisdom bodes well for an Iowa State team expected to feature three guards that have been at the center of the most successful run in program history. Naz Mitrou-Long, Monte Morris and Matt Thomas enter their final season in Ames with impressive resumes:
- 204 combined wins
- 11 combined NCAA Tournament wins
- 2 Sweet 16 appearances
- 3 NCAA Tournament appearances
- 2 Big 12 Tournament championships
For a program with relatively middling success, Iowa State and its fans would normally shower such an accomplished group with over-the-top praise. And there are certainly examples of fawning adoration from the most diehard of fans, but somehow, it still feels as if this trio has something left to prove.
So how did we get to this point, where an All-American and two of Iowa State’s best shooters of all-time enter their final season with a chip on their collective shoulder?
The story of Iowa State basketball cannot be told without its central character, Fred Hoiberg. You know the story: hometown ball boy turned college star turned head coach; it’s all very dramatic and a genuine source of pride for Iowa State fans, as it should be. But too often lost in that too-good-to-be-true reality are the players that helped Hoiberg return his alma mater to national relevance.
As the Cyclones climbed the ranks of the Big 12, from 12th to 4th to 3rd to 2nd in Hoiberg’s final season, the majority of camera time was reserved for the young coach with the NBA pedigree. Whether it was his fast-paced offense, player’s-coach mentality, or flawless selfie technique, Hoiberg was always the main attraction.
In 2010, Hoiberg welcomed to Ames a group of misfits and malcontents from around the Midwest. Royce White, a ticking time bomb of immaturity from Minnesota; Chris Allen, an Izzo flunkee from Michigan State; Chris Babb, a confident, perhaps misunderstood shooter from Penn State; and Anthony Booker, a highly-recruited but underutilized post from Southern Illinois, made up Hoiberg’s first class of high-profile transfers. First questioned by most pundits, the controversial strategy proved an instant success as the Cyclones returned to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2005.
Hoiberg and Iowa State would build on that success, again molding a group of castaways into an NCAA Tournament team the following season. The transfer gamble quickly became a part of the program identity, for better or worse. National writers lined up to discuss its ethical implications, predict its ugly demise, but ultimately, celebrate its unlikely success.
Iowa State was now Transfer U, where any talented player with a troubled past could start anew. But taking in transfers was never the long-term plan, and the Transfer U moniker was nothing more than a media creation that functioned as in-game fodder for the Reid Gettyses of the broadcasting world.
Contrary to popular, usually lazy assumptions, Iowa State actually continued recruiting high school players. Every team of the Hoiberg era was littered with recruits that came to Ames as wide-eyed freshman, including standouts Melvin Ejim, Georges Niang and yes, Morris, Mitrou-Long and Thomas.
Now, about that Niang fella.
Perhaps no person is more responsible for the relative invisibility of this decorated trio than one Georges Niang. A perfect mix of unwavering confidence, self-deprecation and steady production, the chunky forward from Massachusetts became one of Iowa State’s most beloved players the moment he hit the court. After 1,218 hook shots (approximate), 188 3-pointers and four dunks, Niang established himself as one of Iowa State’s all-time great players.
But with Niang, it was always about something more than just his game. Whether it was his constant stream of shit-talking (a personal favorite), friendly banter with Iowa fans or outright pride in being a Cyclone, he handled the spotlight with a grace far removed from his pregame dance ritual.
With Hoiberg gone to the Chicago Bulls, Niang became the unquestioned face of the program. Every preseason accolade, post-game interview and national television appearance solidified Niang as a character capable of handling the lofty expectations all by himself. But if you listened to the countless interviews, one common theme emerged: his personal success was always dependent on the success of his teammates, specifically Morris, who Niang called “the best point guard in the country” on multiple occasions.
But even while Niang did his best to thrust the spotlight onto his teammates, his soundbites were too reliable, his charisma too strong to redirect the media’s attention. Morris and the rest of the supporting cast would always be relegated to secondary status.
Who Are These Guys?
Stepping out of those shadows won’t be easy. And it’s completely reasonable that Morris, Mitrou-Long and Thomas would enter the year feeling underappreciated. The Cyclones have been picked as low as fifth in the Big 12, and one list of college basketball’s best backcourts ranked the experienced group 14th. That might seem like a compliment, but consider the writer’s rationale:
“For my money, Monte’ Morris is one of the two or three best lead guards in all of college basketball. That’s why the Cyclones made this list despite Morris sharing the floor with a bunch of guys that don’t really move the needle. He makes them good enough to be relevant.”
It isn’t as if these three seniors have been simply riding the coattails of their now-NBA-credentialed colleagues. After Mitrou-Long, Morris and Thomas play their final game at Iowa State, each will leave their own mark on the Cyclones’ all-time record book.
Thomas and Mitrou-Long are likely to end up the second- and third-most prolific three-point shooters in program history. Thomas currently ranks sixth with 165 3-pointers, while Mitrou-Long ranks seventh with 162. (Jake Sullivan ranks first with 270)
Morris, a four-year starter, is likely to become the all-time leader in assists and steals. The preseason Big 12 Player of the Year needs just 114 assists and 39 steals to take down two records that for 30 years have belonged to NBA-great Jeff Hornacek. For reference, last season Morris recorded 241 assists and 62 steals.
Defining Their Legacy
Unfortunately, it’s becoming clearer that the record books won’t be enough. This trio must do something more than just continue its current rate of success. We remember stories, not stats: the return of the program’s favorite son and the emergence of a new one, for instance. This group is now tasked with writing the next chapter without the story’s two main characters. But if we look a little deeper, we see an opportunity that, perhaps less dramatic, is just as important.
The Iowa State program sits at a crossroads. Not only have its two most recognizable figures moved on, but the transfer strategy that reinvigorated the program has been adopted by the sport’s blue bloods, erasing the advantage that lesser programs had quietly enjoyed.
Head coach Steve Prohm has moved quickly to ensure Iowa State continues to put quality talent on the court, securing commitments from a mix of fifth-year transfers, a top-rated junior college point guard and a 2017 class likely to be ranked among the best in the Big 12. But it’s Morris, Mitrou-Long and Thomas that will be most responsible for the program’s transition to a new era. And that should be a welcome challenge for a group that has never been shy about its ambition.
As four-year standouts, or five in Mitrou-Long’s case, the trio obviously must excel when the bright lights are on. But it’s off the court, in the shadows, that they must lead. Because securing the future of Iowa State’s program is the logical next step in this story. It may not be as flashy or dramatic as the Hoiberg or Niang chapters, but it’s every bit as compelling. And maybe that steadiness and maturity is the difference — the defining factors — that catapult this team from sweet to elite.
And this program from relevant to perennial.