A conversation with Matt Abdelmassih

Chris Williams

Publisher

This summer, Cyclone Fanatic plans on going one-on-one with news makers in Ames, giving fans an inside look at Iowa State athletics that you won't find anywhere else. First up is Iowa State assistant basketball coach Matt Abdelmassih on program progress, recruiting, Royce White and more. 

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CF: The last time that we sat down and did an interview like this, you all had gone to one NCAA Tournament. Now you have obviously gone to two. This whole thing seems a little more legit now to the outside world. How has that made an impact on the recruiting trail?

MA: I think it is similar to the first go-around, when we made it. It definitely validates what you are selling to these prospects that you are recruiting. With the second time around, being one play away from making the Sweet Sixteen, just being right there, people know who we are probably a little bit more now than they did a year ago. It’s a good feeling when you walk into a gym and everybody congratulates you on a great year. And that reminds you of course, ‘Man, don’t remind me of this past year because I’m still not over it.’ There’s no doubt that the foundation is really solid moving forward.

CF: I know that everybody around Iowa State feels like the program was at least a little snake bit with the way a few of those games went down last season. Are you hearing that elsewhere?

MA: So many coaches and some of the prospects that we are close and down the road with, right after some of those moments they were critical and on our side, which I guess is a good thing because they must be interested, but yeah, a lot of NCAA coaches from around different conferences really enjoyed watching us play. They brought up Ohio State and they brought up Kansas. Those were the ones that they liked to talk about it. It still puts salt in the wound because we just wish that we could go back and see where the season would have went if we would have had some calls go our way. 

CF: I want to talk about your boss. When he got this job, he caught some flack because he had never coached before. Three years and two NCAA Tournaments later, what is his reputation like on a national scale?

MA: There was a big group when he first took this job that knew Fred was going to be successful because he is extremely sharp and intelligent. He knows what he is doing and most importantly is a really good person. I really think because he is such a good person that people want to be around him. He attracts so many great things to this university. Now with the success, he has made himself into one of the household names of young coaches in the country. All of the different looks and all of the different schools that were maybe trying to lure him there, that’s all to a credit of who his and that is only going to continue. That’s a healthy thing. That just speaks to what a great coach he is. That will continue to happen but his loyalty to this place was clearly shown with his contract extension that was so well deserved. This is the place that he wants to be. This is home.

CF: You’re a New York guy but have been around here for a while now. Does this feel like home yet to you?

MA: No it’s not home to me. But it is a place where when I am on the road, I do enjoy coming back. It’s a comforting place. It’s different than what I’m used to and I’ve really enjoyed that. It’s nice to be around people you really enjoy. Our coaching staff, of course Fred and me have a really good friendship. This is a fun time of the year with Fred because now it’s not about so much all basketball and he can kind of be the guy that I know he is a little bit where he’s not so strict and stern with what he needs to do regarding his busy schedule. This place is an unbelievable place. It’s one of the hidden gems is what I tell people.

CF: You and Fred obviously go way back to the NBA. One of the more impressive things about the last two NCAA Tournament runs has been the fact that both teams consisted of a bunch of new guys that you were plugging in. That will be the case this year too after losing five or six guys who were major contributors. Does the NBA background in this program help as far as meshing new guys together every season?

MA: No doubt. In the 10 years he played in the league, the consistency wasn’t ever really there. It changes every year with free agency and draft picks coming in and new faces, veterans and young guys. It’s similar to college basketball’s landscape. If you look across the country, this whole transfer thing, that’s now relevant. It’s as relevant as can be. You see transfers getting looked at now by the premier programs in the country. Three years ago that wasn’t the case. The transfers we took when we first got here, if they were available now, who knows if Iowa State would have gotten them. We definitely transcended the game in regards to taking as many as we did and how successful we have been. It kind of set the blueprint with a lot of other schools trying to do it. At the end of the day, the new faces are something that he can handle. The talent coming in he can handle. But more importantly, the personalities are what he does a really good job of handling. 

CF: Do other people around the game acknowledge that you guys were really the first program out there to go hard with the transfers?

MA: People know. That’s our deal man. For a transfer, we are the perfect fit. We’re not trying to take six or seven transfers but we are definitely going to be in the running for them. They come in a little bit more polished with experience but in regards to the fact that three years ago we took as many as we did and two years ago we took a few, people acknowledge that Iowa State made it work. 

CF: Let’s talk about next year. Dustin Hogue is a guy who you recruited out of Indian Hills. Tell me a little bit about what he’ll bring to the program.

MA: The one thing that we are excited about is when you lose a guy like Chris Babb who was so tremendous for us in the two years that we had him, he is going to come in and be able to guard multiple positions and guard the best player like Chris did. He can be really effective while doing it. He’s got a great body. He’s an extremely gifted athlete. He can jump out of the gym. He’s a great rebounder. He can be one of the better rebounders on our team and offensively, he’s a great slasher to the basket. His shot is decent. With coach working on it I’m sure he’ll become a better shooter. He is a guy who should be able to score points because he is all over the place. His offensive rebounding will be fun to watch. Hopefully he’ll get some nice put backs. He’s a really good kid.

CF: Let’s look at the Big 12 next year. Baylor has their guys coming back. Kansas loses a lot but is always going to be Kansas. I think that Oklahoma State is the clear-cut favorite based off of who they have returning. But still, is this as wide-open as you’ve seen it?

MA: I disagree about Oklahoma State being the favorite.

CF: Why is that?

MA: Until somebody beats Kansas, it’s like your favorite baseball team the Atlanta Braves. My team (the Mets) is in your division. Until somebody beat the Braves, who was going to win the NL East? It’s like clockwork.

CF: Is that because of Bill Self, the overall tradition or everything combined?

MA: It is everything. Just the aura of Kansas Jayhawk basketball. It’s amazing. We saw it when we thought we had the game in the bag – then that 30-foot bank shot three – it’s amazing how they do it. But they are really good at what they do. They recruit at a high level. Bill Self is an unbelievable coach. Those guys play extremely hard. I would think that Kansas is the favorite. If I was a betting man, I would never bet against Kansas.

CF: Never bet against a streak right?

MA: No. Not at all. But it is wide open. I think that is college basketball anymore. It’s so wide open. It’s unpredictable, which we saw last year with some of these teams that went on runs. We saw major upsets. I think that a lot of it has to do with the fact that a lot of teams have to deal with new guys every year. You’re bringing in transfers, guys are leaving for the draft. There is so much movement going on across the country. I think that speak to how fun college basketball has been.

CF: Based off of that then, how close are we to seeing a 16 beat a 1 in the NCAA Tournament in your opinion?

MA: I still think that it will be extremely difficult. I know that the 2-15 clearly has been a trend over the last few years but man, that’s tough. A 16 beating a 1 is hard to imagine but listen, no matter what it is, there are crazy things happening in sports these days. I wouldn’t be shocked if it happens in the next five years. I’d say the over-under is at 4.5 and I’d probably bet the under that it will happen.

CF: How is Royce White doing?

MA: The situation with Royce is – there has been clearly major differences since probably a week after he was drafted with how they could potentially handle things with him. The unfortunate thing for me, being someone who has known him now for three-plus years and dealt with him through a lot of things, it pains me to see people making him out to be this villain. He is ultimately a good kid. He is a good person. He has good intentions. That being said, he hasn’t handled some things the right way. The Twitter bursts I think don’t speak to who he is. That’s probably something that he should get rid of. But I also think that Twitter can serve as something constructive because you do see some tweets out there from people who are standing up to some of the problems that they are having. I think he can be somebody that transcends the mental illness part of what is going on with athletes. Just like yesterday with Jason Collins. I think it is the elephant in the room. Mental illness is something that is faced by a lot of people. Three years ago I wouldn’t have talked this way. Knowing Royce I am talking like this now because I have been through a lot with him. I have been educated as to how this mental illness thing works and what triggers things and that is the biggest thing for me. The unfortunate way that he is being show in the media. But I will say that it has been brought on by him. It has been brought on by the Houston Rockets. There is blame both ways. Will he ever play in the NBA? I can’t tell you that. Who knows? But I do know that he has every intention to play in the summer league this year, which will be great for him. Hopefully he gets a lot of playing time and he gets on the court and shows some of the great things that he can do. I am a huge NBA fan and I am biased but that kid can be such a great NBA player. He is so talented. I just hope that he gets that chance. But he has to want it too. He has so many things going on. A lot of positive things. A lot of things where he wants to help people’s lives and get awareness out but the platform of the NBA doesn’t get much bigger. If he actually is a working NBA player, that platform will just take off where he can be that positive influence to people facing the same problem that he is.

CF: That has been my thing with it the whole time. What he’s attempting to do is very admirable but he can make a much larger difference if he is actually playing in the NBA.

MA: No doubt. And I’ll say this – there have even been Iowa State fans that have been very critical of Royce. Let’s just remember what Royce did for us that year. This was a program that was in the gutter. It wasn’t a healthy place when we were here three years ago with out a lot of scholarship players. We took a risk bringing these transfers in and they all brought something unbelievable to bring back this incredible tradition that this place has. Royce was a really big part of it two years ago to help us get this place back on the map. He treated people great when he was here. Don’t be so critical of the kid because he does have some issues. We were just really good at dealing with the issues. If we were in the NBA, Royce would be playing 30 minutes a game for Fred Hoiberg. That speaks to how he handled him and how as a staff we handled him. He wasn’t a handful at all.

CF: He obviously loves Iowa State. You saw it throughout the season on Twitter during games.

MA: He loves this place. The amount of times that he has told me that I saved his life and that this place saved his life – he’s always going to be the biggest Cyclone supporter. He is always going to be helping the next big thing come to Iowa State talking about how great this place is and how great Fred Hoiberg is. He doesn’t talk too much about basketball. He talks about the human beings that are here and how well they treat you. They treat you like men. They respect you and they don’t cross over that line. That is the thing that Royce speaks so well about because we treated him like a man. We held him accountable for the things that he needed to do to take care of business because we knew it was a high risk, high reward type of thing. As an ambassador, he would take a bullet for this university and that will go on for the rest of if his life if he is playing in the NBA or doing something else. I hope it is in the NBA because I really think that people will enjoy watching him play. There aren’t many people who can do what he does on the court.

CF: I can’t think of one comparison. 

MA:I was quoted one time as saying that if there is one guy to fairly but unfairly compare him to, it is LeBron. Just the size. I have seen LeBron play probably 10 times live and been in front of him before. Bodies are similar. Skill-set, there is a little similarity. LeBron clearly is LeBron. He’s one of the best players ever. That’s where the unfair thing comes but that’s where the similarities are. It’s painful to be such a big NBA fan and see some of the guys that are in the league actually getting playing time and seeing him struggle the way he is. He doesn’t deserve to go through that and I just hope that there is some light at the end of the tunnel. I hope he figures it out and we’ll see where it goes.

CF: Let’s have a little fun. You’re a passionate fan of the NBA. I’m going to start a sentence and you’re going to finish it.

The 2013 NBA champ is…

MA:The New York Knickerbockers.

CF: Do you actually believe that?

MA: I do think that if the Knicks make it to the Eastern Conference Finals, they are the one team offensively that can score enough points to beat the Heat. They are 3-1 against them in the regular season so why not think that? My second pick, and it is very painful for me to stay this, but I don’t think anybody can beat the Heat if the Knicks don’t.

CF: Being the diehard Knicks fan that you are, does this hatred for the Heat go back to the Ewing days?

MA:Ah I hate the Heat. Seeing Jeff Van Gundy flying around on Zo and P.J. Brown’s ankles, trust me, I can’t stand the Heat. Hate is a strong word but fortunately for a New Yorker it is a regular word used in everyday vocabulary.

CF: Jordan or LeBron?

MA:Jordan all day. Rings. Enough said.

CF: Your favorite Knick of all-time?

MA:Patrick Ewing, hands down. Even though he didn’t win anything.

CF: Be honest with me here. None of this homer stuff. You never really liked John Starks did you? Nobody could stand John Starks.

MA:Yeah just the game seven against the Rockets when he shot like 2-for-90 was awful. I actually got to know him and met him and I have brought it up just because every Knick fan brings it up. It’s the low point of his career. It was terrible. The Knicks would have won that game had he just made three or four more shots. John Starks, don’t like him.

CF: Why isn’t the NBA more popular in Iowa?

MA:No teams here. It is tough because this is clearly a passionate fan base that loves to cheer for its in-state teams. Fortunately and unfortunately, it is only college teams. I don’t know if it is a big enough market to ever get a pro team but I feel like a pro team could be really successful here. I feel like the fans would embrace it.

CF: How many rings will LeBron have when it is all said and done?

MA:Two.

CF: Should Bulls fans be angry with Derrick Rose?

MA:Not at all because this is something that is going to help them moving forward. If the player’s body, and mental state doesn’t match up with confidence, he can’t go on the court and compete. I do like the Bulls a lot because I have close friends that work for them. They agree that Rose has to do what he feels is best.

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