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The Curious Case of Iowa State and Good Problems

We’re entering uncharted territory.

For years, Iowa State football and men’s basketball have had to deal with a lot of bad problems.

Austen Arnaud was the last ISU quarterback to complete an entire season as the starter. We’ve struggled on the offensive line, at running back, on the defensive line, at kicker (thus the Wide Right portion of our name), and virtually every other position on the field. The only positions that ISU does seem to consistently have at least SOME talent at are linebacker and wide receiver, and even the linebackers took a couple years off following the departure of Jeremiah George.

Similarly, this season, Iowa State basketball is going through its own growing pains and power outages. While the team does have more talent than comparable Cyclone football teams of the past, most of the talent on the roster had little to no experience playing high major basketball prior to this season.

Lindell Wigginton and Cam Lard appear to be one of, if not the, Big 12’s best young duos, but both are freshmen and aren’t experienced enough to deliver their best on a night in-night out basis. Nick Weiler-Babb did get some playing time last year, but it was largely as a reserve, and was far from the point guard role he’s been asked to play this year. Donovan Jackson and Solomon Young both returned with some significant playing time last season, but both are still only in their second year with the program.

Throw in Zoran Talley, Jeff Beverly, and Hans Brase, none of which had ever played a single second of high major basketball, along with raw prospects Terrence Lewis and Jakolby Long, and you have a rotation that might as well be playing in Europe. That’s not to say they can’t compete in the Big 12, because this team has shown us on multiple occasions that its top gear can compete with literally anyone. When Lindell and Donovan are knocking down threes, and Cam Lard is rebounding, rim protecting, and dunking with his trademark ferocity, these Cyclones can get hot in a hurry.

That said, as we saw against Milwaukee, Kansas State, Tennessee, TCU, and Baylor, the youth of this team has, and will continue to, make it vulnerable to cold streaks and the aforementioned “power outages,” where the team looks like they’ve never seen a collegiate offense or defense before.

So what’s the common denominator between both this year’s basketball and team football teams of the past? Neither have the combination of talent and experience needed to compete not only at the top of the conference, but on the national stage. The old football teams had plenty of experience and did have talent in certain positions, but largely lacked Big 12-caliber talent at most positions. The basketball team has talent (at least in the starting lineup) to compete on their best night with the pretty much anyone, but virtually no experience in navigating the absurdly difficult Big 12 conference schedule, finishing out close games, or coming from behind.

For evidence of the balance of talent and experience needed to compete at the top, look no further than the 2015 NCAA Final Four. John Calipari and the undefeated Kentucky Wildcats steamrolled their way into Final Four with a ridiculously talented roster, including Karl-Anthony Towns, Devon Booker, Aaron and Andrew Harrison, Tyler Ulis, Willie Cauley-Stein, Alex Poythress, Trey Lyles, and Dakari Johnson, all of which made the NBA, with Aaron Harrison being the only one not an NBA roster at the moment (though he does play in the G-League).

Their opponent? An experienced, well coached Wisconsin Badger team led by seniors Frank Kaminsky and Traevon Jackson, junior Sam Dekker, and talented sophomores Nigel Hayes and Bronson Koenig. This team had been playing together for a couple years, and had become grizzled vets by the time they strolled into Lucas Oil Stadium. As you may remember (or would now be unsurprised to learn), Bo Ryan’s Badgers gutted out a tough win over the mighty Wildcats with outstanding defense and talented veteran leadership.

That’s what makes not only next season, but the foreseeable future, so exciting for both programs.

When Fred Hoiberg left, he left a lot of talent on the roster, but wildly imbalanced recruiting classes left major holes for Prohm to fill with recruits and transfers. He’s done a great job so far, but those huge gaps have forced him to include a lot of youth and inexperience in the rotation. The obvious silver lining is that those young guys then come back next year with an extra year of experience in the system and in the Big 12. If guys like Lindell Wigginton and Cam Lard can be as good as they are now without any experience before the season, imagine how good they can be once they’re deeply familiar with system and the rest of their teammates, instead of essentially relying on their own energy and shot creating abilities to score.

Even during the course of this season, the development of those two freshmen has been obvious and substantial. Cam Lard has become an energetic defensive force in the low post, flashed a capable mid-range shot, and showcased unexpectedly good touch around the rim, all while becoming an excellent runner in transition.

Lindell’s shot selection has improved dramatically, and even though his handle does get a little loose at times, he’s been turning the ball over much less recently. His three point shot has been much better than expected, leading the team in three point percentage at 43.5%. While he doesn’t shoot as many as Donovan Jackson (who shoots 42% from deep), he’s still taking over five attempts per game, so it’s not like he’s a low volume, high efficiency three point shooter like Dustin Hogue was during his senior year (did you know he shot 43%?!?).

Combine Lindell, Cam, NWB, Zoran Talley, Terrence Lewis, and Solomon Young with transfers Michael Jacobsen and Mariol Shayok, and you have an experienced, versatile, and talented core group to build around. Hell, you could just roll with an 8-man rotation of those guys and be a tournament team right here and now. The potential lineups Steve Prohm could use with that group should have Cyclone fans’ mouths watering. Oh, and these guys are getting reinforcement too.

After finally getting a chance to balance the recruiting classes a bit, Steve Prohm has reeled in what is likely the best recruiting class in the history of the program, including an absolute monster in Talen Horton-Tucker. If not for the returning talent, there’s an extremely good chance he’s a day 1 starter (and he still could be, he’s that good). THT is essentially a right-handed version of Deonte Burton, but a little taller. He’s stupid long, can shoot the three, and throws down some of the most vicious dunks you have ever seen. I’m not saying he would beat Deonte Burton in a dunk contest, but I’m not not saying it either.

If we’re fortunate enough to have Lindell Wigginton and Cam Lard around for their junior years, you can then add in Micheal Carter-Williams impersonator Tyrese Haliburton, 6’10” George Conditt, and uber athletic Zion Griffin to the mix. Haliburton has the playmaking skills to essentially mimic exactly what the then-departed Nick Weiler-Babb has been doing, but his ability to defend and hit the outside shot will dictate how far he can go. Conditt is 6’10” with what seems like twenty-foot-long arms, and can be the modern prototype big man that can run the floor and hit shots beyond the arc. A low post duo of Conditt and Lard would be a nightmare to matchup with for opposing teams. Griffin has the highest ceiling of these three, and is an absolute force in transition.

On the football side, Matt Campbell has been (not so) slowly introducing a dramatic increase of talent into the program through recruiting and development of players, as well instituting his culture of player-driven leadership. The overall talent level has increased substantially at every single position, with solid depth backing up a substantial number of All-Big 12 caliber players.

Now, all of a sudden, Campbell & Friends have some tough decisions to make at a bunch of different positions regarding playing time, most notably at the quarterback position.

With Kyle Kempt being granted a sixth year of eligibility, he’ll likely return as the favorite to win the starting job for the 2018 season, with Zeb Noland lurking close behind. The real challenge comes in 2019, when Zeb Noland, Devon Moore, Re-al Mitchell, and Brock Purdy will all be fighting for the starting job. Zeb will surely have the upper hand when it comes to experience, and he seems to be plenty talented. My guess is that he would be the favorite for the job in 2019, especially if he takes over at some point this season and performs well, but the other three are also extremely talented and could overtake Noland. Many people think Purdy is good enough to overtake Mitchell, Moore, and Noland, but Campbell has said that he’d rather play a guy too late than too early.

Suppose Purdy wins the job in 2019. Does Noland transfer to get some playing time? Do Re-al or Devon Moore change positions to utilize their athleticism? How many of these extremely talented players can Campbell realistically retain going forward?

Wide receiver is another position group flushed with talent, with Hakeem Butler leading the group, and Matt Eaton, Deshaunte Jones, Carsen Schleker, Sean Shaw, Jalen Martin, Josh Johnson, Carson Epps, and Tarique Milton all competing for targets. Whoever starts at quarterback will have a ton of options to throw to next season.

No matter what happens, Steve Prohm and Matt Campbell have both done an excellent job of not only adding talent through recruiting, but developing that talent and creating the enormous roster depth that the blue bloods have year-in and year-out. After so many years of only having the bad problems, Iowa State is finally getting a taste of those “good problems.”

Bring ‘em on.