AMES, Iowa (AP) Iowa State had already planned on losing Georges Niang, perhaps the best player in school history, to graduation. The Cyclones were left to hope that star point guard Monte Morris wouldn't follow Niang to the NBA.
The surprising return of Morris , a senior, should keep Iowa State in Big 12 contention and beyond in 2016-17.
The Cyclones won't have as much sheer talent at the top of its rotation as it did a year ago, when it was led by Niang and his 20.5 points, 6.2 rebounds and 3.2 assists per game.
But Iowa State's depth, a major concern last season, should be markedly improved this year.
Beyond Morris, the Big 12 preseason player of the year, the Cyclones return shooting guard Naz Mitrou-Long from season-ending injuries and swing man Matt Thomas, who blossomed into a high-level Big 12 starter in 2015-16. A pair of 6-foot-8, one-and-done senior transfers, Merrill Holden (Louisiana Tech) and Darrell Bowie (Northern Illinois), replace Jameel McKay at center.
Junior forward Deonte Burton is expected to take a big step forward in his first full season in Ames, and second-year coach Steve Prohm said newly-eligible guard Nick Weiler-Babb has the most NBA potential of anyone on the roster. Even the expected loss of Morris turned out to be a blessing for Iowa State. It recruited junior college standout Donovan Jackson to replace Morris and now has both.
''Morris has been terrific. He had a great summer. He got bigger. He got stronger. He understands he has to be a leader on this team,'' Prohm said.
Here are some of the story lines to follow as Iowa State looks to make its sixth consecutive NCAA Tournament appearance this March.
Prohm built a reputation for developing lead guard-type players while at Murray State, so it'll be interesting to see how Morris's role develops in 2016-17. Morris has always been happy to dish out assists, setting the NCAA record for assist-to-turnover ratio as a freshman and a sophomore. But last season Morris began to look for his own shot more than ever, finishing with a career-high 13.8 points per game.
NAZ IS BACK
Mitrou-Long's decision to seek a medical redshirt after just eight games in 2015-16 robbed the Cyclones of some much-needed depth. But his return should make Iowa State better than expected in 2016-17. Mitrou-Long, a fifth-year senior that Prohm said is among the best leaders he's ever coached, has promised to be the Cyclones ''glue guy'' this season. Mitrou-Long averaged 12 points a game a year ago.
BEAST OF BURTON
Burton, at 6-foot-5 and 250 pounds, is a unique player in that he can mix it up in the post and take the ball down court for high-flying dunks. But Burton was inconsistent last season, dominating one night and disappearing the next. Prohm said he wants Burton, who scored 9.7 points a game with 3.9 rebounds in his Iowa State debut, to average a double-double this season. ''His work ethic has been exceptional,'' Prohm said.
HOLDEN AND BOWIE
Iowa State likely won't need either of them to play like stars. In the Cyclones' small-ball system, Holden and Bowie will be asked to provide a front-court presence, gets as many rebounds as they can and fling it up the court so that Morris and the backcourt can exploit matchups in transition. Holden had 8.1 points with five rebounds a game for Tech last season. Bowie was averaging 13 and seven for the Huskies before a shoulder injury set him back.
Prohm must have figured that the Big 12 round-robin was tough enough, because Iowa State's non-conference schedule is far from daunting. A home date with Cincinnati and a road game at Iowa are the highlights, although the Cyclones could get Miami in a tournament game the day after Thanksgiving.