Iowa State is coming off of the best six year run in program history with six straight NCAA tournaments and two Sweet Sixteens. Things figure to be quite different this season because the Cyclones lost Deonte Burton, Matt Thomas, Naz Mitrou-Long and Monte Morris. These four players were all time greats in their own ways and have carried the program for the last four years. The departed seniors, and those before them, have made the program nationally relevant, perennially competing for second place in the Big 12 standings, winning Big 12 tournament championships, and creating the best college basketball program in the state of Iowa. Whether these trends are sustainable in the future will fall completely on the shoulders of the coaching staff and the players they are able to bring in.
Since coach Steve Prohm has taken over for Fred Hoiberg, he has done equally as well as his predecessor up to this point. Many of the players who were contributors over the last two years were players that Fred brought in to the program, but that Prohm had considerable influence on in molding them into All-Big 12 players. Now, all of Fred’s players have left and only Prohm’s players remain. What he can do with them will go a long way into saying how well Iowa State will perform in the coming years.
It has been well documented that the Mayor really didn’t enjoy the recruiting part of being a college head basketball coach. This is very evident when looking at the current Cyclone roster. The only high school recruit that Iowa State signed in what would now be the senior class was Clayton Custer. He was a decently high profile recruit, but played one year at ISU and realized he would never make it in the Big 12. He is now a redshirt junior at Loyola-Chicago. In the class of what are now juniors in college, Hoiberg signed only Nick Noskowiak, who never even made it to Iowa State. Prohm was able to sign Brady Ernst and Simeon Carter very late in this class after Hoiberg left, but neither were Big 12 caliber players and both left the program without hardly ever seeing the floor.
This left an enormous hole for Prohm to fill. Just think about this, when he began coaching his first year not only did he have to recruit high schoolers from scratch for his second season, but there were 0 sophomores that were capable of contributing. Piled on top of that, there were also no other freshman on the roster. So, when Prohm started to form a long term plan for the program, he had to find a way to add kids to the freshman and sophomore classes, as well as recruit high school kids for the next year. That is triple the amount of work that the staff was responsible for in order to keep the program competitive once the Morris and Thomas class graduated. In addition, besides JUCO players, you can’t recruit potential transfers until those players have put themselves on the transfer market. These were massive gaps in classes that Prohm is still working to overcome now.
After playing out the first year with only what he had inherited, Prohm lost the only post in the program who could contribute in Jameel McKay and had to find bigs that could contribute immediately for the next year. This is by no means an easy task and the coaching staff rounded up Merrill Holden and Darrell Bowie as grad transfers, and Solomon Young and Cameron Lard as high school recruits. Bowie and Young turned out to be serviceable, while Lard had eligibility issues and redshirted. Holden initially got major minutes, but was ineffective and didn’t play down the stretch.
Now, granted, Prohm inherited unbelievable talent on the roster when he came to Iowa State, including 3 who are currently on NBA rosters in Georges Niang, Abdel Nader and Morris. With average coaching, they were still going to win a bunch of games in the first two years, but the crowd proclamation that Prohm underachieved, especially in the Sweet Sixteen campaign of 2015-16, is not correct. That team went 6 deep plus Hallice Cooke and Jordan Ashton, who both were very poor in limited minutes. Hoiberg had recruited no one behind them that were sophomores, which would have a year to grow into Big 12 caliber players, or impact freshman that could come off the bench right away.
This team’s clear short coming was on defense, as I noted here. This squad avoided fouls at historic levels, and hemorrhaged a ton of buckets to keep their best players on the court, which was definitely the best policy because there was literally nobody behind them.
Last year offered similar problems because no quality bigs were left on the roster, but Prohm made due with Solomon Young, who played his role very well, and Bowie who contributed effectively down the stretch. Given these roster deficiencies, Prohm still managed to have a very effective season that included a Big 12 title and a round of 32 NCAA tournament trip.
Last year after the Iowa loss, the team was having serious issues. The defense gave up too many easy buckets to a mediocre Iowa team and the offense was composed of standing around playing one on one ball. There was no purpose offensively and no movement to create offensive advantages for the Cyclones. It was incredibly frustrating to watch the Cyclones struggle, especially because they were bringing back four incredibly good and Big 12 tested players.
The talent was there, but the coach staff had not organized the play well enough to reap the benefits. The Iowa game was the lowest point in the season and was lost during a stretch where, after the under 16 timeout in the first half, Prohm inexplicably put Jackson, Young, Bowie and Nick Weiler-Babb on the floor along with Morris. This combination got destroyed in about four minutes of play, and that’s not even the worst part. Prohm came back after the next break by sitting Morris for Naz and keeping the other four in the game. You can guess what continued to happen.
Watch the two below clips to see how the Cyclones stand around with no actions to gain an offensive advantage for anyone and ending in an awful Donovan Jackson off balance, midrange chuck.
Again, just a couple of possessions later, this is even worse. This possession is like the worst stubbed toe you’ve ever had.
Clearly, in addition to offensive execution issues, Prohm also needed to figure out quickly which lineup combinations were effective and which were not.
As I wrote about here, Prohm orchestrated what amounted to an absolutely incredible transformation from that point forward. After the Iowa game, the Cyclones were around 110 points per 100 possessions offensively, according to KenPom, which is well below NCAA tournament level and doesn’t even come close to the average among Power Five teams. Iowa State was now about to dive in to a horrifically daunting Big 12 schedule and was clearly middle to lower pack in the conference. At the end of the season this same team went 12-6 in the Big 12, won the conference tournament and most impressively ended the season at 119.7 points per 100 possessions, according to KenPom, good for 11th in the country. Adding almost ten points of efficiency to your offensive rating midseason while playing in the toughest conference in the country is mind blowing.
The coaching staff is still not getting enough credit for this. Fans think that because we had such talented players last year, that we were automatically going to win a lot of games. That is not how basketball works. Especially in a conference as amazing as the Big 12 was last year, everyone has talent and could win a lot of games. Steve Prohm’s job is to collect that talent, recognize their strengths and weaknesses, then organize structure offensively and defensively for that talent to perform at an optimal level. This value of quality coaching in college basketball is vital, and Prohm proved throughout the season last year that he is a very good coach.
The players on last year’s team, as talented as they were, did not yet know how to create good offensive looks on their own. Prohm had to instill more structured sets that would lead to offensive advantages like Monte coming off ball screens with a head of steam against a big, or Naz and Matt getting screens and sliding to the corners. Prohm’s instruction made them realize that Monte making plays and three point shooting were the bonafide strengths of the team.
Look at this clip below from much later in the season. Naz already knows he is looking for Thomas when he gets into the paint, and Thomas slides to the corner for an open three. Naz could have shot a runner, tried an ill advised dump to a big or stopped and kicked back out to Monte for a reset. He chose the very best option and it turned into three points. We saw almost none of this type of action early in the season.
The same concept applies here, the entire team knows the look they are hunting in this set. Solo sets a great screen, Thomas delivers an on-time pass and Naz delivers. Prohm’s coaching allowed for more efficient organization of the offense like this.
This clip below here shows great improvement and understanding of effective offense from Babb. He would not have made this play earlier in the year, but he understands that his attempt at finishing on this play would be much worse than kicking out to DJ for a wide open three. His vision on this play is incredible and the pass is executed perfectly even though it is wildly difficult. Hopefully we will see similar playmaking skills consistently from NWB this year.
This clip may be the most telling of them all. Early in the year, Bowie would definitely have tried to take that all the way to the rim and may have drawn a charge or gotten his shot punched from behind, but he knew where Jackson was and the best look available in that secondary break, which can only be attributed to coaching and experience playing with each other.
Not every team improves over the course of the season, and I can guarantee that improvement like we saw in Iowa State’s offense is incredibly rare. The state of the program in the past era is the best we’ve ever seen and Prohm’s coaching accomplishments the past two years have been impressive. The challenge moving forward for the coaching staff and players is whether Iowa State will maintain that same level of success.
Stay tuned for upcoming present and future state of the program articles!