Iowa State set for big year in 2015-16
This season might have ended in misery.
But next season could easily finish at the Final Four.
Iowa State (25-9), whose 2014-15 campaign concluded with a stunning 60-59 loss to 14th-seeded UAB in the NCAA Tournament, will be on the short list of teams capable of winning national championship next winter.
The Cyclones should bring back six of their top eight players - including All-Big 12 performers Georges Niang and Monte Morris and league defensive player of the year Jameel McKay - along with junior college power forward Darien Williams and promising Oregon State transfer Hallice Cooke.
''A lot of hard work was put into this season and I feel like this wasn't the way it was supposed to go. But that being said,'' Niang said before a long sigh. ''We're going to have to come back even harder next year.''
Iowa State's finale was a disaster and not entirely surprising given its unfortunate habit of letting opponents get too comfortable on offense. But the 2014-15 season should mostly be remembered as another step forward for coach Fred Hoiberg and his burgeoning program.
Iowa State got rolling in non-conference play, losing only to a Maryland team that turned out to be better than most expected and, somehow, a weak South Carolina team. The Cyclones then finished second in the Big 12, arguably the nation's best league, before beating Texas, Oklahoma and Kansas on back-to-back-to-back nights to win the conference tournament for the second straight year.
Earning a fourth consecutive NCAA bid was also a school record for Iowa State, which saw growth from a number of players who will play a major role next season.
Niang blossomed into a first-team all-league performer who very nearly won Big 12 Player of the Year. He'll almost certainly be a preseason All-American in November. Morris became one of the best point guards in the country. He should join Niang on the Big 12's preseason first team.
Even though he missed the first nine games, McKay gave Iowa State the inside presence it so desperately needed.
It was just McKay's first season of Division I basketball. With that added experience and another offseason to improve, next season could be a breakout one nationally for McKay, who averaged 11 points, 7.6 rebounds and 2.4 blocks a game.
Cooke averaged 8.2 points a game for the Beavers in 2013-14, and he should be better than ever after having offseason surgery to repair cartilage tears in both of his hips.
Iowa State will never forget the UAB defeat, which joined the 2001 loss to 15th-seeded Hampton as low points for the program.
But if everything comes together next season the way it looks on paper right now, the Cyclones should be in position to put this season's finale behind them.
''Unfortunately, our luck has run out, and we've just got to take it how it comes. It's tough, but we've got to move on,'' Morris said.
AP Sports Writer Teresa Walker contributed to this report.