Colorado-Iowa St. Preview
(AP) - The biggest question facing Steve Prohm this season isn't one rookie coaches generally have to address: How can the new guy get through to a group of veteran players talented enough to win a national title?
Nothing short of a Big 12 title and a long run through March will satisfy a fan base hungry to see Prohm deliver, and the seventh-ranked Cyclones begin their season Friday against Colorado.
Prohm has taken the unorthodox step of inviting Niang into his office for bi-weekly, private chats - some lasting as long as 90 minutes - in an effort to fully connect with the team that Fred Hoiberg left behind when he took the coaching job with the Chicago Bulls.
''He's won a lot of games. He's a senior. He's a leader. He's a captain,'' Prohm said. ''He's earned that opportunity.''
Prohm's situation has been highly unusual from the moment he arrived in Ames. He inherited a Final Four-caliber roster. Niang, seniors Naz Mitrou-Long, Jameel McKay and Abdel Nader and star junior point guard Monte Morris are all as strong-willed as they are talented. They are the core of a team that went 25-9 and won the Big 12 tournament last season.
Prohm quickly realized that changing things didn't make much sense when he arrived from Murray State after piling up a 104-29 record over four seasons running a fast-paced, high-scoring offense. But Prohm also knew that he wouldn't get anywhere if the Iowa State veterans didn't follow his lead.
Prohm made Niang a de facto liaison between the coaching staff and his teammates as they prepare for Colorado.
At the heart of Niang and Prohm's private talks is a shared desire to take the up-tempo offense Iowa State ran so well under Hoiberg and marry it with Prohm's desire for more defensive toughness.
''I think it's actually super cool that you have a coach that has no ego and really wants to sit down and understand what's going through your mind,'' Niang said.
Niang was an overlooked recruit while playing prep school ball in New Hampshire alongside Nerlens Noel, now with the Philadelphia 76ers. Last season, Niang averaged 15.3 points, 5.4 rebounds and 3.4 assists and earned third-team All-America honors.
''He makes you continue to keep thinking, keep probing, keep trying to find different things to challenge him,'' Prohm said. ''Great feel for the game. Great understanding of the game and how to make people better. I just think he's a special player, and I'm fortunate to be able to coach him.''
Beyond Niang, McKay was last year's league defensive player of the year, Morris has led the nation in assist-to-turnover ratio two years running and Mitrou-Long is among the nation's best from 3-point range.
''Obviously, we have big dreams, big goals, big aspirations of winning Big 12 championships and making a great postseason run,'' Prohm said.
The Buffaloes struggled to a 16-18 mark in 2014-15, ending a string of three straight NCAA Tournament appearances. What was supposed to be a promising year finished with one of their leading seniors making headlines for skipping a third-tier postseason tournament to allow his younger teammates a chance to play without him.
Just the way things went in coach Tad Boyle's first losing season at Colorado.
''Adversity shows all of your warts and when we faced adversity last year, we weren't the most cohesive and together group,'' said Boyle, who's 108-68 in five seasons at Colorado. ''I think we'll face adversity this year as well. I think that's when leadership comes in.''
More precisely, forward Josh Scott's leadership.
At 6-foot-10 and 245 pounds, he rules the lane. But when it came to commanding his team, he was sometimes reluctant to admonish players.
Not so these days.
''It's kind of hard to call out a friend, but you have to realize you have to be teammates and call each other out on our mistakes,'' Scott said. ''In terms of carrying that over to this year, I've seen a whole lot more holding people accountable, people being more vocal, and I think that's just going to help us this year rather than how it hurt us last year.''
Already, Boyle is taking a more hands-on approach with this team in an effort to get the program back on track.
''Hopefully, when adversity hits this year, this group can come together and galvanize together rather than not,'' Boyle said. ''I don't think last year's team did a great job of that.''
Colorado started off rocky and never recovered. A surprise, too, with a team that boasted Scott, Askia Booker and Xavier Johnson. Booker didn't join the squad for the CBI Tournament for his final games in a Buffs jersey.
Now, the team will look to Scott, who averaged 14.5 points and 8.4 rebounds last season.
The Buffaloes will be without Johnson for at least the start of the season. He tore his Achilles in June and isn't expected to return until at least mid-to-late December.
''We're going to have to make up for it,'' Scott said. ''I think we're going to be fine honestly.''