The Cyclones are poised to have another strong season under Hoiberg. (Jamie Squire/Getty Images)
You can be forgiven for not knowing what to expect from Iowa State in 2014-15.
In the months since the Cyclones’ season ended with a loss to Connecticut in the Sweet 16, there has been more focus on Fred Hoiberg than the team he has coached to three consecutive NCAA tournament appearances. This isn't altogether stunning: Hoiberg has been linked to multiple NBA jobs and reportedly spoke to one team about its coaching vacancy. And until every position is filled, Cyclones fans will continue to hold their breath.
The Mayor received a $600,000 raise this offseason, a due reward for molding the Cyclones into a nationally relevant team and guiding them to their first Sweet 16 since 2000. But even that only briefly distracted attention from Hoiberg’s prospects as an NBA coach. Perhaps the only noteworthy item this offseason that didn’t involve Hoiberg’s professional aspirations was this video touting the many benefits the city of Ames, Iowa, has to offer.
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The discouraging part about all the Hoiberg talk? It has hijacked an offseason that could have been spent focusing on a Cyclones team set to push Kansas for a Big 12 title. Star point guard DeAndre Kane and Big 12 player of the year Melvin Ejim are gone, but the group coming back could eclipse what Iowa State accomplished last season.
Rising junior Georges Niang, one of the most versatile forwards in the country, headlines a frontcourt that will also feature seniors Dustin Hogue and Daniel Edozie, Marquette transfer Jameel McKay (will not be eligible until Dec. 20), Northern Illinois transfer Abdel Nader (suspended indefinitely after an offseason arrest) and 7-foot-1 Greek import Giorgos Tsalmpouris. McKay's shot blocking should provide more bite to a defense that ranked 72nd in points allowed per possession last season.
The backcourt isn’t in bad shape, either, even though Kane will be hard to replace. Point guard Monte Morris did not receive the praise he deserved last season, but it will be hard to ignore the 6-2 sophomore if he continues to operate the Cyclones’ offense so efficiently. Morris posted a 4.8 assists-to-turnover ratio, a top-50 offensive rating (125.1) and ranked first among major conference guards in one advanced metric. UNLV transfer Bryce Dejean-Jones will also be in the mix and should fit well in Hoiberg’s system, so long as he learns to curb his trigger-happy impulse. Sophomore Matt Thomas and junior Naz Long will also compete for backcourt minutes, and the Cyclones welcome in four-star guard Clayton Custer.
It may seem foolish to think anyone can unseat Kansas in the Big 12. The Jayhawks have lorded over the league for most of coach Bill Self’s tenure, and they are loaded with talent again this year. But would Kansas’ claim to another conference crown seem like such a sure thing if Iowa State’s season hadn’t ended so abruptly?
The Cyclones fell five points short of bouncing the eventual national champions in front of a Huskies-partial crowd at Madison Square Garden, in a game that featured 27 points from forward DeAndre Daniels. Niang, who was unavailable after breaking his foot in the second round, could have swung the outcome in Iowa State’s favor. And if the Cyclones won that game, who knows how far they could have advanced. Which is why the following comments from Hoiberg at a recent Cyclone Caravan stop seem reasonable. From The Cedar Rapids Gazette:
“We all play the what-if game,” Hoiberg said. “The previous game, Georges was averaging over 21 points. He had 24 in 26 minutes, five on a broken foot in that last game against N.C. Central. He was playing in as good a rhythm as anybody in the nation. He was our closer.
“Connecticut’s big guy had a huge impact on the (Sweet 16) game early, and a lot of that’s because Georges wasn’t in the game.
“There’s no guarantees. I’m not saying it’s 100 percent absolute (a championship run) would have happened, but we would have had a chance. There’s no doubt about it.”
With Niang back and a strong supporting cast around him, Iowa State has a chance to achieve what Hoiberg thought was possible last season. So while the optimism surrounding the Cyclones may be tempered by rumors about Hoiberg’s NBA appeal, if you ignore the outside noise, one truth shines through: Iowa State should again emerge as one of the top teams in its conference.