AMES — Fourteen and counting.
That’s how many — as of early Thursday afternoon — family and friends of ISU big man Jameel McKay planned to help populate a sold-out Wells Fargo Arena when the already-hyped “rim protector” debuts for the 13th-ranked Cyclones in Saturday’s 4 p.m. Big Four Classic matchup with Drake.
“They’ve been anticipating this moment probably just as much as I have,” said the 6-9 McKay, who has spent more than a year practicing, not playing for the Cyclones after transferring from Marquette. “So it’s big time.”
True enough, but it’s important to temper immediate expectations while inevitable rust is shedded.
McKay, a potentially game-changing junior who boasts an expansive 7-4 wingspan, will have gone 665 days between college games. The Milwaukee native ended his accolade-filled, two-year Indian Hills Community College career on Feb. 23, 2012 — and won’t start for ISU (8-1) when it squares off against the struggling Bulldogs (2-8).
“A lot of it’s going to be about timing,” Cyclone coach Fred Hoiberg said. “You can do all you want on the treadmill and in the weight room and on the practice court, but nothing compares to that game action, especially when you get the butterflies going and the adrenaline’s going. So again, there will have to be some patience as Jameel gets that timing back.”
But once he does, look out.
“He’s the ultimate energy guy,” said boundlessly energetic forward Dustin Hogue, who can slide back to the three spot as McKay acclimates to Division I game conditions. “Everyone says I’m the energy guy, but he’s looking a lot more hyper than I do out there. His ability to play defense and rebound is going to be something that we haven’t had in a long time. his length is going to make it tough for any guy to finish over him.”
Hoiberg declined to forecast how many minutes McKay will play Saturday, but the big man should make an immediate impact in terms of matchups, post defense and sparking transition offense.
“We’ll go by feel, kind of like we always do,” Hoiberg said. “We’ll see what type of impact he has out there on the floor. He could play 30 minutes, he could play 15 — who knows? It just depends on how the flow is going, how other guys are playing, how he’s playing. The biggest thing we’ve talked about with this group is it’s going to take some sacrifice from everybody on minutes and going out there and accepting roles and it’s not always going to be your given night. So it’s something that from a depth standpoint, I’m excited. It’s going to be able to give a couple of our key guys some more rest.”
As for the possible sacrifices on the minutes front, McKay’s teammates are prepared — and eager — to handle such a proposition.
“It just takes a lot of weight off everybody’s shoulders,” hot-shooting guard Naz Long said of McKay’s impending availability.
The defense should instantly improve. Double-teaming the post will become more exception than rule. Opponents will likely think twice before attacking the rim with McKay poised to strike and swat.
“I think the biggest thing with Jameel is just his overall energy — the way he can transition down the floor, really at both ends,” Hoiberg said. “For 6-9 with a 7-4 wingspan, he’s incredibly athletic and (it’s) really the first time we’ve ever had a true rim protector in the five years that we’ve been here. So I’m really excited.”
But he’s patient, too.
Just as transfer guard/forward Abdel Nader needed time to regain his explosiveness after a long lay-off, McKay can’t necessarily be counted upon to be consistently game-altering each trip up and down the floor.
"I just can’t let my emotions get the best of me early and I just know, to myself, I’m not going to be at my best maybe my first few games back, because there is a transition," McKay said. "But once my timing gets back I should be fine.”
Tick-tock. The countdown’s over.
“I’ve been calling him December 20th since I found out that was going to be the day,” said Hogue, a senior who teamed with McKay at Indian Hills. “So to actually have a teammate that I grew up with in my first two years of college; to be able to play with him again will be big time for me. I know I’m going to have a guy every night and it’s going to be able to push me and just have me up my game, because I’m going to have to up his, too.”
So it’s up, up and away time for McKay, and taking flight — no matter now erratic the early pattern could be — never felt so good.
“It’s just crazy for me right now,” he said. “I’m just so happy to be back on the team, honestly, and being able to compete. I’ve been waiting for this day, what, 18 months now? I just can’t wait. The level that the team’s been playing at right now has been unreal, so I’m just hoping to come in and help contribute. I want to just flow right in with the team. That’s the biggest thing to me, is not to mess anything up, but to just flow right in.”