Inside a raucous Hilton Coliseum, fans have watched as their Cyclones have strolled to six straight NCAA Tournaments. Six straight tournament appearances is a long enough streak to get excited about, but short enough in duration that fans can remember when winning wasn’t the norm. The wins have piled up as Hilton Magic returned to form, much to the delight of Cyclone fans all across the great state of Iowa.
For a streak that screams consistency, outsiders often view Iowa State as a place with a constant turnover of talent. As transfers made their way to and from Ames, the backbone of the team remained the four year players. On Tuesday night, six seniors will play their last home game as a Cyclone, but there will be one trio of players getting the loudest applause.
When Matt Thomas, Nazareth Mitrou-Long and Monte Morris address the crowd Tuesday evening and walk off the floor of James H. Hilton Coliseum one last time, it will mark the end on era in Cyclone basketball. Don’t get me wrong, Iowa State will continue to play and win basketball games under Steve Prohm (remember, the Cyclones bring in one of the most highly-touted recruiting classes in school history), but no longer will any of the players responsible for bringing the magic back to Hilton be pacing up and down the sidelines. From the lower bowl to the upper concourse, fans of all ages will be overcome with emotion as we remember the joy these three brought back to Cyclone basketball.
As a fan of college basketball, it’s easy to develop a soft spot in your heart for the players on your favorite team. Iowa State basketball has become appointment television and we’ve had the pleasure of spending a couple of hours a night with this cohort twice a week. They’ve provided many of us an escape from our professional lives and given us something to look forward to during the long winter months. In what is admittedly hyperbole, we’ve watched them grow before our eyes almost as though they were children of our own.
We’ve witnessed the successes and failures of these three seniors as they grew from baby-faced freshmen to veteran members of the Iowa State program and Big 12 Conference. The trio will likely be part of four NCAA Tournament appearances (it will be 5 for Naz), at least two Sweet 16’s and no less than two Big 12 Tournament championships. That, plus a 95-26 record over the past four years, has served as a tasty plot for this group’s etching in Cyclone lore. While we wait for the final chapter to play out, we take a look at how each member of this trio authored a different story during their tenure in Ames.
One of the most decorated recruits in recent Iowa State history, Matt Thomas came to Ames as “the next Fred Hoiberg.” He will leave as the first Matt Thomas.
The shooting guard from Onalaska, Wisconsin will end his Cyclone career no worse than third all-time in 3-pointers made at Iowa State.
His tenure in Ames wasn’t without adversity. Facing many struggles early in his Cyclone career, Thomas could have easily transferred after two of the men that recruited him (Fred Hoiberg and TJ Otzelberger) left for other jobs. Luckily for Cyclone fans, the shooting guard stayed in Ames and was an integral part of at least two Sweet Sixteen appearances and two Big 12 Tournament championships.
The senior has battled through bone spurs in his foot this season to record his highest scoring average of his career, including a career-best 25 points against Kansas State. Thomas, who struggled with defense early in his career, worked himself into one of the better defenders on the team.
Naz Mitrou-Long has recorded some of the biggest shots in recent Iowa State history. When fans look back on his tenure, they will remember him as the fearless, long-range bomber that served as the emotional leader for his squad. It is fitting his senior night will occur against Oklahoma State...
Hopefully fans also remember him as one of the most improved four-year players in Cyclone history.
Here is a bit from his ESPN recruiting profile:
“Nazareth is a big guard, with a pass first, shoot second mentality. He's a solid athlete with a strong body. He's more of a combo guard but can play the point.”
Five years later, I don’t think anyone would describe Naz as a “shoot second” type of player. It is absurd to think Naz has a chance of setting the record for the most 3-point baskets made in Iowa State history. The Canada native is a completely different player than we saw in his limited minutes during his freshman year.
Like Thomas, Mitrou-Long found adversity of his own during his time in Ames. After playing sparingly during his first year at Iowa State, and facing the proposition of sitting behind Monte Morris and DeAndre Kane, Naz could have made the easy choice to transfer. Instead Mitrou-Long transformed himself into one of the best shooting guards in the Big 12.
The toughest moment of Naz’s basketball career undoubtedly occurred when he was forced to shut down his “first” senior season in 2016 due to hip surgery. With high expectations for the team and himself that season, Naz was forced with an impossible decision. Play through the pain and be a shell of himself in hope of being the missing piece the team needed, or sit the season out and bounce back for a second chance at a senior season?
After putting up the best numbers of his career this year, it’s hard to argue he made the wrong decision.
It’s tough to imagine #11 not hanging from the rafters of Hilton Coliseum one day. While his teammates garnered most of the spotlight during his early years in Ames, it was Morris’ ability to orchestrate the offense that made Hoiball click.
This year’s squad wouldn’t be the same without the Flint, Michigan native. One message last spring changed the outlook for the 2016-17 season in an instant.
A special message for Cyclone Nation! pic.twitter.com/jsKr1pt6wW— BigGame (@MonteMorris11) April 8, 2016
During his time in Ames, Morris has grown as a scorer and defender. The pre-season Big 12 Player of the Year will leave Ames with at least five wins over Kansas, including a victory in Allen Fieldhouse that snapped Kansas’ 54-game home court winning streak. Of course, ISU’s victory over Kansas in the Big 12 Championship in 2015 wouldn’t have been possible without his late game heroics against Texas to open the tournament.
While Morris is destined to play in the NBA next season, he hasn’t forgotten about his roots. One of his biggest accomplishments in Ames occurred off the basketball court when the Michigan native partnered with Hy-Vee to help alleviate the pain felt by many in Flint, Michigan during their recent water crisis.
It isn’t much of a stretch to call Monte Morris the best point guard in college basketball. Iowa State fans are extremely fortunate that Morris chose to call Ames home for the last four years.
The Final Run
Tuesday will mark the final home game of the season, but we can hope it’s just the beginning of a very successful end of season run. This group of Cyclones could play as many as 11 more games or as few as four. No matter how it plays out, this senior class will surely be remembered as one of the most successful to play in Ames, Iowa.
When these seniors leave Ames, it doesn’t mark the end of Cyclone basketball. More games will be won, more games will be lost. Though hard to imagine, the next group of Cyclones could be wildly more successful than this group. That shouldn’t (and won’t) take away from the ride these guys have taken us on the last four seasons.
Soak it up, Cyclone fans. The most exciting time of the year has arrived, and if past success is any indication of future performance, we are in for an exciting month of March. As the tears well up in your eyes Tuesday, excuse yourself from being sad that it’s over, and be thankful that it happened in the first place.
Thank you, seniors.