Monday Musings: Will more competition breed future success?

So far this offseason, we have all heard plenty of chatter about how the 2014-15 Iowa State men’s basketball team will be more talented and more athletic than the group that went to the Sweet 16 in March. That is saying a lot, considering that many believe Iowa State could have made it all the way to the Final Four had Georges Niang not broken his foot late in a second-round victory over N.C. Central.

Is the 2014-15 squad more talented? On paper, probably, but that is still a fairly subjective statement considering the fact that these guys have never stepped on the floor together against an actual warm-blooded opponent.

For the sake of conversation today, let’s just pretend for a minute that the “next year’s team is more talented than last year’s team” statement is a stone cold fact. If that is the case, I think that everybody reading this would now ponder the same thing.  

“What is this group’s chemistry like?”

Chemistry is what made the 2013-14 Cyclones so dangerous. You don’t end up on the right side of so many come-from-behind victories like Fred Hoiberg’s Cyclones did a year ago without that intangible. It was a gritty (my favorite word to describe that team) group that to play into a cliché, had each other’s backs. If it was fighting for a tough rebound, defending the home floor, issuing some payback against West Virginia or winning at Oklahoma State for the first time in what seemed like 300 years, that group of Cyclones wasn’t afraid to get its hands dirty. It is that never-say-die characteristic that made the 2013-14 group so popular and so fun to watch.

Because of this, next year’s group has a lot to live up to. Without that chemistry and that willingness to dive on the floor for a loose ball even though you’re up by 35 on UMKC, fans and media alike will be quick to compare that group to the 2013-14 Cyclones. 

When it comes to the new-look Cyclones, one of the team’s most vocal leaders likes what he has seen so far. 

“Seeing all of the signs that I am seeing now, this is very similar to last year’s team,” Naz Long said last week at the CCL. “We have a lot of guys returning and new people coming in. They are fitting in well. Hallice (Cooke) is here and Jameel (McKay) and Abdel (Nader) have been here for a year now. These guys, I feel like I have known them for years.”

This year’s team is different however due to the voluntary competition that is taking place on the practice floor this summer. In the past, we have seen Hoiberg go with a six-man rotation. At the absolute most, he has gone seven or eight deep during meaningful Big 12 tussles. This fall, The Mayor could realistically play 10 or 11 guys – if he wants to. That is the key.

However, I’m not entirely sure if that will happen and it seems like the players feel this way too. In return, this scenario has created a different type of culture around the Sukup in the offseason.

“This is my third year being here and I can easily say this is the most competitive group I’ve been with. It isn’t even close,” Long said. “Every time we get into the gym it is so competitive. It is so competitive to the point where you wouldn’t even think we are teammates if you watched us. I kid you not.” 

Think about the roster the year that Long first arrived in Ames. Depending on your thoughts on Anthony Booker, Iowa State had (in my opinion) six (seven if you count Booker) legitimate Big 12 players on its roster.

And next year? It is early, but I’d put that number at nine right now (Dejean-Jones, Hogue, Long, McKay, Nader, Niang, Morris, Thomas & Custer). Others, will have an opportunity to add to that number in the coming months (and Custer could be taken off of it as he is still unproven) so really, it could be at 10 or above come November. 

With higher expectations than ever before, Long said that his teammates realize that playing time will be at a premium. Quality Big 12 players might not see the minutes that they did even a short year ago. This is the evolution of a program. When the wins come, so does more talent.

“Georges and Jameel. Me and Monte. Sherron and Hallice and me,” Long explained.  “All of us, the guards and the bigs, we go at it as if we don’t know each other and every time we shake hands. It’s just so competitive. Everybody is pushing each other and clapping for each other.”

After talking with players and sources inside the program, offseason workouts sound like they have been a grind this summer for the Cyclones – a good grind though. It is a grind that should produce better basketball players come January, when it counts. In return, the players have grown closer because of it.

“This might be one of the best teams I have been on, chemistry wise,” Long said. “We do everything together. We go to the movies. We go hand out and chill at my spot or chill somewhere else. It really is a team.”