Iowa State can win a National Championship this year. This program which has grown exponentially in the last four years is on the cusp of something great. That isn’t hyperbole. The Cyclones have all the pieces.
Reading the above probably makes the old-time Cyclone fans nervous. Slow and cautious never got anyone hurt after all. But the time has come to cut off the parachute of nerves and dive head first.
First the obvious qualifier, the NCAA Tournament is as unpredictable as any sporting event in the world. Last year’s Final Four is exhibit A. Only weirdos could have predicted UConn, Florida, Wisconsin and Kentucky as national semi-finalists. Heck, UConn needed a 3-point play with three seconds left to send their opening round game against St. Joseph’s to overtime. So nothing is guaranteed.
That said, there is a reason this Cyclone team has the most hype entering a season in our lifetimes. Iowa State is ranked in the preseason top 15 for the first time since 1996-97. That Cyclone group was a rugged, defensive-minded bunch led by the sharp-shooting Dedric Willoughby and the beat the hell out of you front line of Kelvin Cato, Kenny Pratt and Shawn Bankhead. They out-muscled other clubs but labored at times to score if Willoughby wasn’t connecting. They also had little depth and got worn down as the season progressed.
Only seven Cyclones on that ’97 club averaged 10 or more minutes per game. In their Sweet 16 loss to UCLA, Iowa State led 46-30 with 17 minutes remaining but hit a miserable dry spell. Iowa State scored just six points over the next 10 minutes and the lead was erased. They wound up losing 74-73 in overtime on the infamous Cameron Dollar floater over Cato. In the loss, the five Cyclone starters each played 40 or more minutes. The lack of depth and dearth of multiple offensive weapons doomed them.
The story was similar for the ballyhooed 2000 team led by All-Americans Marcus Fizer and Jamaal Tinsley. The Eustachy coached group was a shade better offensively with the same nasty disposition. Unfortunately, the bench in March consisted of Paul Shirley and Brandon Hawkins. That was it.
In a brutal tussle with Michigan State in the Elite 8, the Cyclones led 61-55 with five minutes remaining. The lack of depth for Iowa State showed at the worst time. Fizer got whistled for his 4th foul on a questionable moving screen. On Iowa State’s next possession Paul Shirley received a pass, was impeded before he landed and the infamous "blarge" was called. It was Shirley’s 5th foul and Iowa State was without its only healthy player taller than 6’8. The Cyclones unraveled down the stretch and Michigan State won the title nine days later.
We all know what happened last season. The Cyclones were playing as well anybody entering March Madness. A broken foot later and Iowa State’s most used front-line was 6’6 Melvin Ejim and 6’6 Dustin Hogue. Hoiberg’s club fought like hell, but didn’t have the juice or rim protectors to slow down the Huskies.
On paper, this newest group of Cyclones appears to have a remedy for the ills of Cyclones past.
Iowa State returns the key tenants of Hoiball: skill, pace and buckets. Iowa State led the so-called Power 5 schools in points per game a year ago and only trailed Indiana the year prior. This year will be no different. Iowa State is going to be a load on offense once again. Hoiberg said during the preseason that he’d like to play even faster this season; a move that would make Art Briles jealous.
Georges Niang shot a very pedestrian 32 percent from three last season while Matt Thomas fired at a 34 percent clip. If the preseason is any indication, Iowa State can and, likely, will make more threes this season. A team that averaged 83 points a year ago may actually post better numbers.
But offense has never been the problem under Hoiberg. They will be as good as anyone in the nation. For Iowa State to win a title, they are going to have to up the ante defensively.
Here are the last five NCAA Champions and their respective rank in KenPom’s defensive efficiency stat:
2014 – UCONN (10th)
2013 – Louisville (3rd)
2012 – Kentucky (8th)
2011 – UCONN (13th)
2010 – Duke (8th)
The connection is obvious. Iowa State was much better defensively a year ago, but still finished 72nd in the country.
So what’s different about this current group? Length and depth. My good pal Travis Hines eloquently stated in the Ames Tribune that, "The first eight games for Iowa State are just a preamble."
Jameel McKay enters the fray after that and the real Cyclone story gets written. At 6’9 with a monstrous wing-span, he alters the mindset on defense. The usually conservative Cyclone defense can become the aggressor because they have more of an eraser. That means getting in passing lanes, causing chaos and cashing in on easy buckets.
But it is more than just McKay that changes the mentality. With 11 and potentially 12 bodies capable of producing, foul trouble becomes less of an albatross. Last season, when Niang or Ejim found themselves with foul difficulty, the defense suffered. The intensity dropped a few notches and Iowa State strategically was more conservative on defense to protect those guys. The increased depth means that if someone does get in foul trouble or (knock on wood) injured, Iowa State has options.
That’s the difference between this Cyclone club and the Sweet 16 teams of ’97, ’00 and ’14. This current group has talent and a bench. Fresh legs are aggressive legs and that is what is needed to clear the final (four) hurdle.
Hoiball developed an attitude and a national following last season. The Cyclones proved they belonged with the best. Add in some length and reinforcements and now everything is on the table. Jump aboard, the road to Indianapolis is just 500 miles and five months away.