After a run of enormous success under Fred Hoiberg and the first couple years of Steve Prohm, the Iowa State basketball program was expected to enter 2017-2018 in a state of rebuilding (or reloading, depending on who you talk to). The 2016-2017 team featured six seniors, five of which were major parts of the offensive rotation. Any team would be expected to take a dip after losing that many seniors, but Iowa State didn’t lose just any seniors.
First and foremost, the Cyclones lost the greatest point guard in school history (anybody suggesting otherwise is delusional) in Monte Morris, two of the 3-5 best shooters in school history in Matt Thomas and Naz Mitrou-Long, and one of the best off-the-dribble scorers of the past twenty years in Deonte Burton, all four of which are playing professional basketball. Even role player Darrell Bowie is playing professionally in Europe. That’s a ridiculous amount of talent and experience to replace.
On the heels of all those departing seniors, Steve Prohm brought in Lindell Wigginton, the most highly anticipated recruit since Marcus Fizer, another exciting freshman in Terrence Lewis, an unknown, but promising redshirt freshman in Cameron Lard, and grad transfers Jeff Beverly, Zoran Talley, and Hans Brase. Expecting this inexperienced group to immediately pick up the slack was unrealistic, regardless of how talented they appeared to be.
For part one of our Season in Review, we will touch base on the team’s performance as whole, including it’s performance relative to expectations.
The season couldn’t have started much worse for our beloved Cyclones. After running into a good Missouri squad (even without Michael Porter Jr.) in Colombia and losing by 15 points, Iowa State inexplicably dropped the home opener to UW-Milwaukee by 18 points. Needless to say, most Cyclone fan essentially abandoned any hope of extending the school’s NCAA Tournament appearance streak after that loss. Nonetheless, most still stuck around to see the development of the young talent, especially Lindell Wigginton and Cam Lard.
Fortunately, fans were rewarded for their loyalty, as the team strung together nine consecutive wins to close out the non-conference season, including a good win over a solid Boise State squad and wins over Iowa and UNI. Undoubtedly, the biggest reason for the turnaround was Nick Weiler-Babb’s transition to the point guard role, letting Donovan Jackson and Wigginton work off the ball. NWB’s stoic demeanor gave the Cyclone offense a calming presence it often lacked while the more aggressive Donovan Jackson was slated as the lead guard. Through most of non-conference play, NWB nearly average a triple double.
Cameron Lard also showed how high his potential is, routinely blocking shots at the rim and running the court better than most every Cyclone big man in recent memory, probably even better than Jameel McKay. It was easy to see that this was a much better team when Cam was on the floor. However, similar to McKay, foul trouble and poor body language hampered Lard early on, as he was held out of the first two games of the season. Lard only fouled out of three games on the entire season, but on multiple occasions he picked up two fouls early in the first half, limiting his impact on the game and forcing the young Cyclones to play without a low post presence.
Grad transfer Zoran Talley showed some ability early on, but a stress fracture hampered him for multiple weeks near the end of non-conference play and into the Big 12 schedule. His absence, along with Hans Brase’s spotty availability often left the squad with very few available bench players.
Overall, the non-conference season will probably not be looked at as an indicator of the overall quality of this team, as the opponents were largely poor, and the worst loss of the season came before Cameron Lard’s debut and Weiler-Babb’s switch to point guard.
Big 12 conference play took Cyclone fans on an emotional roller coaster that will likely stick in the minds of Cyclone fans for quite awhile. After a somewhat successful end to the non-con season, it was expected that Iowa State would be able to pick up at least one win in the first two conference games, both home contests against Kansas State and Texas. Instead, our Cyclone dropped both games, looking wildly outclassed in both contests. After losing the next contest at Oklahoma State, this team finally showed what it could do when playing its best in a showdown with Kansas at Allen Fieldhouse.
The good guys still lost that game by an 83-78 final, but the inexperienced Cyclones looked every bit the part of team of the same quality as some of the tournament teams of the past decade behind 27 points from Lindell Wigginton. That game signaled the first time we’d really seen the explosive freshman take a game into his own hands, a sign of his maturation as the team’s go-to guy.
After the loss at Kansas, Iowa State used those lessons to win two of the next three games, with wins coming over Baylor and then-No. 8 Texas Tech at home. However, the team’s expected inconsistency returned in two bad losses to Texas and Tennessee. After the loss to TCU, Nick Weiler-Babb was then ruled out indefinitely with a hip injury which would eventually sideline him for all but two of the remaining games.
After NWB’s injury, Lindell Wigginton was immediately transitioned to the point guard role, a position which he will likely play full-time beginning next season. Continuing on the roller coaster from hell that was this past season, Iowa State then took down a tough and ultra-experienced West Virginia team at home behind the unexpectedly good play of Zoran Talley as the primary ball-handler against the Mountaineer press.
After two more bad road losses, the Cyclones got their final win of the season at home against Trey Young and the Oklahoma Sooners. Trey Young was the runaway Wooden Award favorite, but Lindell Wigginton took the defensive challenge head on and held Young to 22 points on 21 shots from the field, using his physicality to bother the talented Sooner point guard.
Wigginton poured in 26 of his own points, but the real star of the show was Cameron Lard, who finished with 19 points and 9 rebounds, physically dominating the Sooners in the paint. To this point in the season, Lard and had been improving quickly, but this game really showed why he is one of the most promising young big men in the Big 12.
The Cyclones eventually lost six straight games to close out the season before falling to Texas in the first round of the Big 12 Tournament, signaling in the end of the season.
Overall Impression and Relative Expectations
Going into the season, you could have asked a hundred Cyclone fans what they thought the 2017-2018 season would end up looking like, and you would have heard a hundred different answers. Opinions varied wildly from a fiery descent into irrelevancy (read: pre-2017 Texas Tech basketball) to a top-10 seed in the NCAA Tournament. Either way, everyone knew this year would be a(n) interesting/fun/infuriating/delightful/maddening experience.
However, I think virtually every Cyclone fan would agree that the team probably underachieved a bit.
The talent and athleticism was easy to see, but the inexperience of the squad resulted in wild inconsistency, with troubles ranging from turnovers, to poor defense, to poor inbounding on offense. However, upon inspection of KenPom, I was extremely surprised to learn that our young, inexperienced, turnover-prone Cyclones actually LED the Big 12 in turnover percentage in conference play at 16.6%. If you dig deeper, the turnover story gets a lot more interesting.
Lindell Wigginton’s ability to score at any time from anywhere on the court is something to behold, along with his startling athleticism and explosiveness. However, as freshman tend to do, he would occasionally speed himself out of control, causing a silly turnover that would inevitably lead to a transition bucket. Given that tendency, along with his role as one of the primary ball-handlers, one could reasonably expect him to turn the ball over more than pretty much everyone on the team.
Which he does.
But, wait a sec. Who actually had the highest turnover percentage of the significant contributors?
Outside of the oft-injured Hans Brase, Nick Weiler-Babb actually had the highest turnover percentage of anyone on the team, more than 3 percentage points higher than the team’s turnover percentage. Undeniably, NWB’s assist rate is significantly higher than Wigginton’s, and the two players have different skill sets and roles in the offense, but it also tells us that Wigginton’s “turnover problem” was probably significantly overblown, especially given his scoring ability. Lindell’s at-times questionable shot selection also created some turnover-like opportunities for the opposition to run in transition, which may have contributed to the perception (and eventual over-estimating) of his turnover issues. NWB’s turnover were less noticeable, as his shot selection tended to be better (as you would expect an upperclassman’s to be), and he had a much lower usage rate than Lindell, with the two coming in at 19.5% and 27.7%, respectively.
Another completely bonkers thing I wanted to point out is each player’s offensive rating. Wigginton, unquestionably Iowa State’s most lethal scorer, came in SEVENTH, behind Donovan Jackson, Cameron Lard, NWB, Zoran Talley, Solomon Young, and Jeff Beverly (!!). This is the perfect illustration for why this year’s Cyclone basketball team was so inconsistent, but at times so electric. When your “seventh-best” offensive player can go for 25+ on any given night, you’re bound to see some fireworks on offense at times. Conversely, if your best scorer rates out as your “seventh-best” offensive player, you’re also likely to see some of those droughts we saw at times during the season.
After digging through the stats and metrics more in-depth, you can be sure that we’ll dig even deeper into why this team was so fun to watch, yet so maddening this past season, and see what it means for the future. Keep your eyes opened for part 2 of the “Season in Review” series, where we dissect the performances of the (most common) starters.