WILLIAMS: Ranking ISU’s non-con hoops games

And so it begins.

Welcome to basketball season, Fanatics.

With the non-conference portion of Iowa State’s schedule beginning tonight, this slate of 12 games is intriguing due to personnel issues facing the Cyclones more so than the schedule itself. 

Potential starters Matt Thomas and Abdel Nader will miss the first two games of the season due to suspension. “Rim protector” extraordinaire Jameel McKay won’t see the floor until Iowa State meets Drake on Dec. 20 because of NCAA transfer rules.

Factoring in all of that in addition to home/away status and the toughness of each opponent, here is how I rank Iowa State’s 2014 non-conference basketball schedule from the easiest game to what I consider to be the toughest.

12 – MISSISSIPPI VALLEY STATE – Wednesday, Dec. 31 at 6 p.m. in Hilton Coliseum

After winning the SWAC two years ago, Mississippi Valley State’s RPI plummeted to No. 342 last season. The Delta Devils are being picked to finish dead last in its league this year. For one night only, Iowa State should allow Cyclone fans to bring booze into Hilton. After all, it is New Years Eve. Iowa State will roll by 40-plus here.

11 – LAMAR – Tuesday, Dec. 2, 7 p.m. in Hilton Coliseum

Fun fact: Remember former Texas Tech coach Pat Knight (one of the all-time great interviews in the Big 12)? The General’s son was fired at Lamar in the middle of last season after starting the year off with a disgusting 3-22 record.

Now, a man named Tic Price is leading the way and the Cardinals are being picked to finish 11th of 13 in the Southland Conference.

I would go on and analyze this team but it would be a waste of my time and yours. By all mean, the Cyclones should clear the bench and cruise here. 

10 – OAKLAND – Friday, Nov. 14, 7 p.m. in Hilton Coliseum

The Golden Grizzlies went 7-9 in their first season as a member of the Horizon League in 2013-14 and have been picked to finish seventh in the conference this time around.

Oakland, who plays an up-tempo style of ball, lost one of the top players in program history after last season in Travis Bader, who made 147 3-pointers during the 2013-14 campaign. 

Look for the Cyclones to let it fly early and often in this one as last season, opponents made 48 percent of shots against Oakland.

This is a frontcourt oriented team that is led by 6-10, 260-pound big man Corey Petros, who averaged 13.3 points and 8.2 rebounds per game last season. 

9 – UMKC – Tuesday, Dec. 9 at 7 p.m. in Hilton Coliseum

Is it weird to anybody else that the Kangaroos (besides the Anteaters of UC-Irvine, this is the world’s greatest mascot) play in the WAC?

Damn realignment.

Anyhow, Iowa State whooped up on this program last season (110-51) and while UMKC should be much better in year two of the Kareem Richardson era, this team shouldn’t provide much of a challenge, if any, for the Cyclones.

Richardson, a Rick Pitino protégé, can coach but the talent just isn’t there yet. UMKC wants to press and play solid defense.

I dare the Kangaroos to press Iowa State in Hilton Coliseum. No, I double-dog dare them. 

8 – SOUTHERN – Sunday, Dec. 14 at 5 p.m. in Hilton Coliseum

Fun fact: Remember Calvin Godfrey? The former Cyclone averaged 13.1 points and 8.8 rebounds per game last season for the Jaguars, who are based out of Baton Rouge. Godfrey has since transferred to Memphis for his fifth year of eligibility which in return has left Southern’s frontcourt thin.

The Jags are picked to finish seventh in the SWAC this season. 

Southern traveled to Iowa State in 2012. The Cyclones won that tilt by an 82-59 final.

7 – DRAKE – Saturday, Dec. 20 at 4 p.m. in Des Moines’ Wells Fargo Arena 

Blue Ribbon (my preferred preseason “magazine” of choice) has the Bulldogs finishing dead last in a watered down Missouri Valley Conference this season. 

Dead last! 

What has Ray Giacoletti been up to anyway?

In all seriousness, Giacoletti had quite the rebuilding project ahead of him when he took this job and it will take time before the Bulldogs are relevant again.

Instead of scouring the JUCO and transfer markets for a quick fix, Giacoletti brought in six freshmen in last year’s recruiting. That’s fine and dandy but Bulldog fans need to practice patience with this rebuilding job. 

There are two reasons as to why this game is interesting: It will mark the debut of Jameel McKay for Iowa State and it is part of the “Big 4 Classic” in Des Moines. Iowa State generally struggles at the Wells Fargo Arena and for that reason only, this could be close for a while. 

6 – ALABAMA – Monday, Nov. 24 at 8:30 p.m. in Kansas City’s Sprint Center

This is a low-level SEC program that went 13-19 a season ago. 

Anthony Grant’s team does return four starters though from that group and boasts a four-man recruiting class that some experts tanked in the top 30.  However, Bama has to replace its point guard, a four-year starter in Trevor Releford.

On a neutral floor, anything can happen. But this is the game that Iowa State gets Thomas and Nader back. Iowa State loves Kansas City’s Sprint Center too, which should be an advantage for the good guys.

5 – ARIZONA STATE/MARYLAND – Tuesday, Nov. 25 at 8 in Kansas City’s Sprint Center

How weird is it that Maryland is in the Big Ten?

Iowa State will play either the Terrapins or the Arizona State Sun Devils in its second game in Kansas City in a few weeks. My pick is that it will be Maryland, but I’ll preview each team just in case. 

Maryland is projected to finish 10thin the 14-team Big Ten this season. Former Texas A&M head coach Mark Turgeon is the current leader of that program going into its first season in the Big Ten. Due to graduation, this is a backcourt-oriented team that still needs to find a point guard.

Arizona State is a crapshoot. Herb Sendek brought four JUCO’s in during the offseason and all of them will play.

This team has to replace its top three scorers from a season ago including Jahii Carson, who led the way at 18.6 points per game.

My guess is that if the Cyclones handle Alabama, it will be an Iowa State-Maryland championship game in the CBE Classic.

4 – SOUTH CAROLINA, Saturday, Jan. 3 at 5 p.m. in Brooklyn’s Barclays Center

If you’re a Cyclone fan heading east to bring in the new year, listen to this advice and DO NOT LOOK former Kansas State head coach (now with the Gamecocks) Frank Martin in the eye. He is a scary, scary man.

All joking aside, this is a game that on paper Iowa State should win.

The Gamecocks were picked 12th(of 14) in the SEC’s preseason media poll but something tells me they could be better than that.

South Carolina went 14-20 (5-13) last year but did so without its best player, Tyrone Johnson, most of the way. Johnson, a former transfer from Villanova, had been averaging 15.5 points and 2.3 assists per game prior to going down early in the SEC season. He’s back and South Carolina’s backcourt is full of quality guys.

It’s a team that is unproven and should struggle in the paint but being that this is fresh off of the holiday in an unfamiliar arena, I wouldn’t be shocked of the Gamecocks give Iowa State a run for its money in this setting. 

3 –  ARKANSAS – Thursday, Dec. 4 at 8 p.m. in Hilton Coliseum

The Razorbacks were picked to finish third in the SEC and have six of their top seven scorers returning from last season’s squad that went 22-12 (10-8). 

(The big reason why this game isn’t second on this list is because of Iowa State’s personnel issues vs. Georgia State.)

Led by second-team All-SEC forward Bobby Portis (12.3 points, 6.8 rebounds per game), the Razorbacks are a deep basketball team, which plays right into what former Missouri coach Mike Anderson wants to do. He will attempt to bring that “40 minutes of hell” style of ball into Hilton. 

Look for a lot of points to be scored in this one (take the OVER).

Fun fact: Former Cyclone Chris Babb’s younger brother, Nick, is a freshman guard for the Razorbacks.

2 – GEORGIA STATE – Monday, Nov. 17 at 8 p.m. in Hilton Coliseum

I’ve ranked this as Iowa State’s second-toughest non-conference game for two reasons. The first is that the Cyclones will still be without the services of Nader and Thomas. The second is the fact that Georgia State is a mid-major program with high-major talent.

The fact that this is the second game of the year is what should make Iowa State fans slightly concerned.

The unanimous favorites in the Sun Belt were stunned in the league’s conference tournament championship season a year ago. Otherwise, Georgia State (went 25-9 last season that included a 17-1 league mark) could have been a Cinderella type of program in the NCAA Tournament.

R.J. Hunter, a 6-foot-7 junior (the son of head coach Ron Hunter) averaged 18.3 and 4.6 and could go pro this summer. His prominent tag team partner is a senior point guard named Ryan Harrow, who averaged 17.8 points and 4.2 assists per game last year. 

Blue Ribbon gives Georgia State an A+ grade when it comes to backcourt talent, an A in bench/depth and an A in intangibles. 

ESPN, CBS, Sports Illustrated and USA Today all have Georgia State projected as a 12-seed (always the most dangerous seed for underdogs in the Big Dance) in the 2015 NCAA Tournament. 

Fun fact: USA Today actually has Georgia State (12-seed) meeting Iowa State (5-seed) in the second round of the NCAA Tournament (I agree that tournament projections in November are utterly ridiculous).

1 – IOWA – Friday, Dec. 12 at 7 p.m. in Carver Hawkeye Arena

Without question, this is the toughest game on Iowa State’s non-conference schedule. The last time that Iowa State rolled into Iowa City, a rowdy crowd (it’s Iowa’s Super Bowl, duh) that was thirsty to pick up a “W” against its in-state foe was waiting for the Cyclones. That atmosphere should be enhanced this time around due to the recent success of both programs.

It would be nice if Iowa State had Jameel McKay in this one as Iowa’s frontcourt will be one of the best that the Cyclones see all season. Adam Woodbury, Aaron White, Gabe Olaseni and Jarrod Uthoff equal a formidable will likely give the Cyclones some trouble.

Iowa State clearly has an advantage in the backcourt though.

The real question surrounding the Hawkeyes though is finding somebody to replace Roy Devyn Marble as the program’s “closer.”