There's a seminal moment in the film Friday Night Lights where Billy Bob Thornton, who's of course playing the role of coach Gary Gaines, starts to remove the names of his departing seniors from his depth chart. It's a powerful portrayal in the film as the iconic names "Mike Winchell", "Don Billingsley" and "Ivory Christian" see their magnetic placards stripped from the roster, one by one.
Upon his return to Ames, Steve Prohm very well might be doing something similar. With Iowa State's 84-71 loss to Virginia in the Sweet 16, no more will Prohm be able to look at his program's roster and see the names "Abdel Nader", "Jameel McKay" and of course, "Georges Niang".
A new set of names will take their places and I'm sure after deep reflection, Prohm will turn his focus to the 2016-2017 season. Just as the 1988 Permian football team failed to reach their ultimate goal of a state championship, Iowa State failed to reach the Final Four. Of course, if you're familiar with the Friday Night Lights story, you know that Permian rebounded to win the 1989 5A championship in Texas, backed by many of the players that weren't spotlighted in the book or the film.
Now, asking Iowa State to achieve even greater success next season, especially sans the services of Niang, who just might be the greatest to ever don the Cardinal and Gold, might be a bit much, but the cupboard is far from bare. The wounds from Friday evening are still fresh, but it's time to turn the focus to what's in store for this program going forward.
Seniors: Monte Morris, Matt Thomas, Naz Mitrou-Long, Jordan Ashton
Juniors: Hallice Cooke, Donovan Jackson
Sophomores: Nick Weiler-Babb
Freshmen: Jakolby Long
With or without Monte Morris, the backcourt will be the undeniable strength of next year's team. Coming into the season, it was expected that Iowa State would be replacing Naz Mitrou-Long, but after shutting it down 9 games into the year, Mitrou-Long will apply for a medical hardship waiver to gain another year of eligibility. Assuming he receives the waiver (and I'd venture to guess that's a safe assumption), the Cyclones will effectively have an all-senior starting backcourt in Morris, Mitrou-Long and Matt Thomas. That trio easily gives Prohm one of the five best starting backcourts in the nation so long as Mitrou-Long is healthy.
Of course, this assumes that Morris returns to Ames. The junior star has been non-committal about his status and will likely test the waters of the NBA draft, as he should, but I'm not convinced that he's going to like what he hears. Morris is a special talent, but in my worthless amateur opinion, I don't think he's a lock for a first round draft pick, nor can I say with certainty that he'll hear his name called in the second round. But, this is a fluid situation and a lot can change between now and May 25th, which will be the deadline to withdraw from declaring for the draft.
So until Morris says otherwise, we'll tentatively pencil him in as Iowa State's starting point guard for next season.
Coming off the bench, Prohm will have an intriguing array of options as a deep stable of guards jockey for minutes. Hallice Cooke and Jordan Ashton return to the fray, but as we saw throughout this past season, both failed to make any type of significant impact as part of the rotation. Cooke looked like a promising transfer based off of his time at Oregon State, but played sparingly and when he did, production was usually minimal. Cooke shot a respectable 36.5% from deep, but averaged only 2.6 points per game in just shy of 11 minutes of playing time on a nightly basis. Ashton grabbed a spot in the rotation when Cooke was suspended and fell out of favor, but was a complete non-factor offensively and failed to appear in three of Iowa State's last five games.
Provided both Cooke and Ashton stick around, I struggle to see much more of an impact out of either and that may be in part due to who Iowa State has coming in. Starting with Weiler-Babb, the Arkansas transfer has been with the program for close to a year now and figures to have a leg up on newcomers, Jackson and Long. Weiler-Babb of course comes from good stock (Chris Babb) and assuming he holds true to his brother's pedigree, we can reasonably expect an immediate impact. Weiler-Babb failed to earn much playing time as a freshman with the Razorbacks, but the talent is there. He's an explosive athlete and at 6'5", his length will allow Prohm to use him as a versatile perimeter defensive stopper. Every team needs "three-and-D" guys and Weiler-Babb should be able to give Iowa State that off the bench.
After Mitrou-Long went down, Iowa State lacked a true back up point guard, especially with the ineffectiveness of Cooke. That won't be the case next year as Iowa Western transfer, Donovan Jackson makes his way to Ames. Jackson was averaging 15.3 points and shooting 49.5% from outside before breaking his right wrist (Jackson is left-handed) back in January. He missed the remainder of the Reivers' season, but should be fully healed for summer workouts.
The final piece of the backcourt puzzle comes from the prep ranks in Jakolby Long. The 6'5" Oklahoma native enjoyed a banner senior season and comes to Iowa State with the reputation as a long-range sniper with a penchant for getting after it defensively.
If one thing is for certain, Prohm will have much more options at his disposal during the '16-'17 campaign, but this group will only go as far as Morris, Mitrou-Long and Thomas take them.
Seniors: Deonte Burton, Darrell Bowie
Juniors: Emmanuel Malou
Sophomores: Simeon Carter, Brady Ernst
Freshmen: Solomon Young
And here's where the uncertainty lies. We knew that replacing Nader, McKay and Niang was going to be difficult, but after the pantheon season that Niang just turned in, it might just be damn near impossible. I'll try my best to avoid recency bias and hyperbole, but Niang just delivered arguably one of the greatest individual season in Iowa State history. You simply don't get players like Niang in your program very often and it can't be overstated just how profound his impact has been. But, Prohm is going to have to turn elsewhere.
Deonte Burton is the only returning player that garnered any minutes and the Big 12 Newcomer of the Year will have to make a much bigger impact as a senior. There's a lot to be encouraged about with Burton's game as the Marquette transfer averaged 9.7 points and 3.9 rebounds per contest after sitting out the season's first 9 games. He started 7 games as McKay battled his personal issues and was quite efficient shooting 53.3% from the floor and 47.4% from outside. Ideally, Burton will be able to play a more natural small forward position next season, which will suit him much better than being tasked with checking players half a foot taller than him.
The headliner of Iowa State's recruiting class is 6'9" Emmanuel Malou, who will be a starter from day one. Malou left Yuba College in middle of this season to transfer to DMACC in Boone to focus on his academics. As concerning as that may sound, all indications are that he'll be eligible next season. Malou was averaging 15.3 points per game and shooting 52.1% from the floor before leaving Yuba. It's hard not be excited about what Malou can do on the big stage after watching one of his highlight videos. He can handle the ball, shoot it from deep, post up inside and protect the rim. It's easy to see why everyone from Bill Self to NBA scouts took a liking to Malou.
Adding depth and experience will be 6'6" Darrell Bowie, who comes to Iowa State as a one-year rental grad transfer from Northern Illinois. Bowie sat out this past season, recovering from a shoulder injury he sustained during the '14-'15 campaign. Even with the injury, Bowie managed to average 9.8 points and 5.4 rebounds as a junior, which were similar to the numbers he put up as a sophomore (9.6 points and 6.5 rebounds). Bowie may or may not start, but at the very least, he should bolster the front line, especially in the rebounding department.
The remainder of the frontcourt is a little bit of a mystery. For the sake of ease, we're assuming that there will be no defections from the program, but if we're being realistic, we know that attrition is usually unavoidable in this day and age. And that brings us to Simeon Carter and Brady Ernst. I listed Ernst as a sophomore, but Prohm shut him down early into the year in the hopes that they could request a medical hardship waiver as Ernst was still recovering from a torn ACL in 2015. The Clinton native appeared in only 6 games, playing only in garbage time. Long term, he physically looks like he could develop into a solid role player, but it's unclear if the skill is there.
Carter likely has the higher upside of the two, but still failed to crack the regular rotation this past season, which is telling given Iowa State's lack of depth. Granted, Carter didn't get to work out with Iowa State for a full summer, nor did he get to travel to Spain as he committed to the Cyclones in August after failing to qualify at SMU. Couple that with the fact that he was only a freshman and it would be unfair to write off Carter's potential at this point. With a season under his belt and a full off season ahead of him, Carter could surprise and be a big piece going forward.
The final piece of the frontcourt will be Solomon Young. The 6'7" forward from Sacramento brings a Big 12 ready body to the Cyclones. Young is a bit of a wild card, but could contribute immediately.
The Final Synopsis
I hinted this several times, but don't count on the roster we see today as the final make up of next year's team. Prohm has already mentioned that he needs to get more talent in the frontcourt and now that the season is over, this is the time of year where
free agency transfer season begins.
Still, should anyone leave, it will likely come from a little-used commodity and not impact the core of this team. And speaking of that core, with the experience and talent returning in the back court coupled with some fantastic potential up front (Malou/Burton/Bowie), there's no reason this team can't make it back to their sixth straight NCAA Tournament.