Fred Hoiberg is off to coach the Chicago Bulls, and never mind any endeavor by his Iowa State successor to be half as popular as one of the most popular people ever to walk that campus. There is, however, the question of whether the success Hoiberg enjoyed in Ames is repeatable by someone else, or whether it was the combination of one man bringing to bear an amenable personality, a great basketball mind and everyone's abiding reverence for him. There is at least one very simple way for the next guy to gain his own popularity and to answer that question: He can take a potential-laden roster and survive the first weekend of the NCAA tournament. That is something Hoiberg, in all his glory, did only once. It won’t make anyone in central Iowa forget their favorite son, but avoiding another March anticlimax will cut down the shadow he casts.
After Iowa State’s inspired charge to its second straight Big 12 tournament title last March, confetti fell on the Sprint Center floor while visions of a long NCAA run lingered in the air. Just four days later, however, the Cyclones' season was over after a Round of 64 loss to 14th-seeded UAB, leaving them with a 4-4 NCAA tournament record under Hoiberg. Surely the loyal but fierce followers of the program are tired of falling short. The 2015-16 team returns four of its top six scorers, and it has the capacity to get Iowa State to only its third Elite Eight in school history and its first Final Four since 1944. Meet that capacity, and the pearl-clutching about the direction of the program post-Hoiberg will end before it could ever really begin.
The critical Iowa State mission at hand isn’t rebuilding or reloading. It’s reinforcing. The short-term optics here are key to sustaining competitiveness down the line, and it’s no exaggeration to say this may be one of the most important seasons in school history. The Cyclones have a solid program, but not one that is inoculated against a backslide into irrelevance. They can’t afford to follow Hoiberg’s departure with a disappointing season that turns into a winter-long funeral dirge. So take what Hoiberg created and improve upon it, even for one year, and the mere appearance of consistency can mute the notion that this was a one-man show. There's no better way for a new coach to distinguish himself from a local legend than to achieve more than the legend did.
In that sense, a new name will matter less than a sane approach. The next man up may be T.J. Otzelberger, a top assistant under Hoiberg who reportedly has the support of Iowa State athletic director Jamie Pollard; the 37-year-old Otzelberger procured talent like Craig Brackins, Melvin Ejim and Georges Niang in his first spell as an assistant for Hoiberg and returned to the staff in April after working at Washington for two seasons. Or maybe the school will get Phoenix Suns coach Jeff Hornacek to return to his alma mater. Or maybe it will be another established coach sizing up the Cyclones' talent and salivating at the chance to maximize it.
Whoever it is, the charge is clear: Don’t overthink or over-manage things. At least for a season, cater to the strengths of the players on hand—though a few extra defensive drills wouldn’t hurt—and let that carry the day. If it looks too much like Hoiball for the new guy’s ego to take, too bad. A smart coach will realize there is no use in caging a team accustomed to running free.
Likewise, this is the best way to ensure the Iowa State players are in listen-only mode. A new coach means a new voice but zero guarantee that the players are open to hearing it. These Cyclones are an affable, easygoing group. But they also know each other, and they know what works. Niang, a rising senior forward, is best as the offensive fulcrum—he used a team-high 26.7% of possessions last year—who can invert defenses as a multifarious 6’8” weapon and distribute as needed. Junior point guard Monte Morris requires no reigning in, not with a 7.1 assist-to-turnover ratio in transition scenarios last season, per Synergy Sports data. Senior forward Jameel McKay, the reigning Big 12 defensive player of the year, follows blocked shots with full-throttle sprints that wear on opposing big men and often result in very cool dunks.
Long-term, we’ll see about the Cyclones. This is a program without built-in success, despite playing in a Hilton Coliseum routinely filled by a rapacious fan base. Johnny Orr, the winningest coach in school history, retired in 1994 after 14 seasons in which he was only 18 games over .500. Tim Floyd followed and won 20-plus games for three years before a 12-18 season preceded his departure to the Bulls after the 1997-98 season. Larry Eustachy got the Cyclones to the Elite Eight in 2000 but won just 29 games combined in his final two seasons before the end came in 2003. Wayne Morgan and Greg McDermott never won more than 20 games between them but never fewer than 14, either, across seven mostly mediocre campaigns. Hoiberg’s teams won an average of 24.8 games over the past four seasons. The question now is: How much did the man make the program?
The search for an answer may start simply enough: Take what one of the most revered personalities in Iowa State history made, and do better with it.