For ISU, chemistry comes one bounce at a time

AMES — The light burns late in ISU coach Fred Hoiberg’s office at the Sukup Basketball Complex.

 His usual day-or-night soundtrack?

 The sweet, syncopated drumming caused by a basketball thumping the hardwood, over and over, again and again.

 “It’s fun to sit up in my office and hear the ball bouncing down here,” said Hoiberg, who helped introduce the 2014-15 Cyclones during Wednesday’s media day. “You build chemistry when you’re in here as much as those guys are.”

 Bonds built in the gym go a long way toward explaining how Hoiberg’s turned an also-ran program into a Big 12 title contender and national power in just four seasons at the helm.

 ISU reached the NCAA Tournament for the first time in seven years in Hoiberg’s second season.

 Year three brought a round of 32 appearance that nearly ended in an upset of Ohio State.

 Last season, more progress ensued, as the Cyclones overcame a season-ending injury to their most versatile player, Georges Niang, and marched to their first Sweet 16 since 2001 before falling to eventual national champ Connecticut.

 That feat’s commemorated by a banner hanging in the Sukup.

 And every time record-setting point guard Monte Morris glances at it, his muscles tense and his eyes narrow.

 “We knew we could have beat UConn,” said Morris, who established a new NCAA benchmark for assist-to-turnover ratio, at 4.79-to-1, his freshman season. “We just feel like we just didn’t make our run early enough. That game, it just makes you hungrier for the next year-opening game. That game, it drives me, Naz (Long), Georges — all the guys who came back, even the new guys like Clayton (Custer). He asks, ‘How was that game at Madison Square Garden?’ I have to tell him he’s going to go through it in a month. It just shows you how all in we are about winning.”

 That’s the culture Hoiberg’s infused into his alma mater.

 “The Mayor” said last year’s Melvin Ejim and DeAndre Kane-led team featured the best chemistry he’s ever experienced as a player or a coach.

 Guys laughed together.

 Uplifted each other.

 And often, they punished each other.

 Chemistry often works in mysterious ways, but it’s been a constant at ISU in recent years because of the often fierce competition that rages within — then is unleashed on foes. 

“It’s almost like they enjoy beating up on each other, then they go talk about it afterwards,” said Hoiberg, whose team finished 28-8 last season and won the Big 12 tournament. “Some teams, they build chemistry in a bowling alley after practice. This team builds chemistry in the gym. They’re in here so much together with each other, without the coaches. It’s really impressive.”

 Newcomer and electrifying UNLV transfer guard Bryce Dejean-Jones learned how the Cyclones bond when an errant elbow smashed into his chops.

 “It was unintentional,” Dejean-Jones said with a laugh. “We’re out here playing hard.”

 None of which has gone unnoticed.

 Each year Hoiberg produces greater results, external expectations increase.

 ISU’s a national name now, which makes manufacturing added motivation from media slights such as last season’s bizarre USA Today projection that it would finish last in the Big 12 an almost impossible task.

 It’s also unnecessary — as the constant drumming of the basketball that fills Hoiberg’s upstairs office attests.

 “At any point in the day you can come over here and I guarantee you there’ll be someone in here working,” said Long, a junior who produced a pair of buzzer-beating 3-pointers in thrilling wins over Oklahoma State last season. “The whole team has just been putting in work — all 15 guys. It all comes down to understanding that we want to do special things this year.”

 What he means by that is being ranked consistently in the top 15 in preseason polls amounts to a quaint honor.

 Nice, but beneath them in terms of the ultimate perch among college basketball’s elite they plan to reach.

 “We feel like we can be even better than we were last year,” said the slimmed-down, but more chiseled Niang, who averaged 16.7 points before a broken foot in the second round of the NCAA tournament relegated him to cheerleader status. “If you take a look at this group, we’re extremely talented 1-15. We have a lot of talented guys in this locker room — all guys who are willing to put their agendas aside to win. That separates good teams from great teams.”

 Good teams are happy with ending Sweet 16 droughts.

 Great ones hungrily shoot for much more.

 “Indy,” Morris said in reference to the 2015 Final Four site. “That’s all we want to get to.”


 NADER, THOMAS SUSPENDED: Hoiberg announced that guard Matt Thomas and forward Abdel Nader will be suspended for the first three games of the season (one exhibition, two regular season games). Both were arrested in the offseason and charged with OWI.

 "Since that time I’ve been very proud of how those guys have conducted themselves and will continue to conduct themselves when they’re in an Iowa State uniform and on this campus," Hoiberg said. 

 DUNK MADNESS: Hoiberg said he’s excited about the first ever “Hilton Madness” showcase for men’s and women’s hoops on Oct. 18.

 “I think it’s great,” he said of the event. “I think it’s a really good opportunity for the fans to meet both teams. I think our team has a couple guys that can dunk pretty well. Hopefully they don’t get hurt. We’re not going to let one of them jump over people.”

 Who’s the favorite, though?

 First, Hoiberg — tongue firmly planted in cheek — asked walk-on freshman Daniel Stenslund, a 5-10 guard from Waverly.

 “I can get close,” Stenslund replied.

  Reporters chuckled.

 “There’s your winner right there,” Hoiberg said. “Everybody else will miss.”

 Not so fast, though.

 High-flying senior Dustin Hogue strolled by.

 Hoiberg: “Hey, Dustin, can you win the dunk contest?”

 Hogue: “Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah.”

 There you have it — though also high-flying Marquette transfer Jameel McKay might have something to say about it.

 SUPER-SIZED GREEK: There’s no question raw freshman Georgios Tsalmpouris, a 7-1, 227-pounder from Katerini, Greece, needs to add bulk to his sleek frame. 

 So far, so good on that front, Hoiberg said.

 “He put on almost 20 pounds since he’s been on campus,” Hoiberg said. “I saw an article where he said he didn’t like the American food. Obviously he’s finding a way to stuff it into his body. I asked him what he had for dinner last night. He said he had three bacon cheeseburgers. I said, ‘Good job. Keep it going.’”

 Tsalmpouris may be a work in progress, but he figures into ISU’s plans right away — especially with McKay sitting out the first eight games per NCAA rules. 

 You can’t teach that length,” Hoiberg said. “He’s legitimately 7-1 and he can shoot the heck out of the ball.”

 TAT TALK: Dejean-Jones sports a tattoo on his right arm that reads, “R.I.P. Competition.”

 It’s a grim, flames-filled scene, meant to depict where his foes figuratively end up. “It’s always been a thing for me growing up,” said Dejean-Jones, who Hoiberg noted has hit 12 of his 15 shots in three early-season practices. “We took competition serious. That’s just how I feel.”

 MEAN STREAK: ISU big man Daniel Edozie blocked three shots in one game last season. Expect more to come — thanks to some advice from fiery forward and fellow senior Dustin Hogue. “(He said), ‘Bro, this is your last year,’” said Edozie, a 6-8 force in the paint. “‘You’ve got to really come out and compete and you’ve got to give it your all every practice.’ I was like, ‘OK.’ He was like, ‘Man, you’ve got to get mean.’ And every time he says it, I always have to think of something that’s going to get me going.”

 What’s that something?

 “That’s actually kind of personal,” Edozie said.

 Fair enough, but whatever he’s tapping is leading mostly to success.

 “He had a series last week where — Jameel will love me saying this — he threw Jameel’s shot against the wall, then went down and hit a jump hook over him,” Hoiberg said. “Then he came down and dunked one on Dustin Hogue. It was the best stretch of offense I’ve seen Daniel have since he’s been here. And then he shoots an air ball from 18 feet, but those first three plays were pretty good.”


Rob Gray


Rob, an Ames native, joined Cyclone Fanatic in August, 2014 after nearly a decade and a half of working at Iowa's two largest newspapers. He spent 10 years at the Des Moines Register and, after a brief stint in public relations, joined the Cedar Rapids Gazette as an Iowa State correspondent three years ago. Rob specializes in feature stories for CF.