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Basketball

WILLIAMS/GRAY: Previewing 2015 in Iowa State athletics

Cyclone Fanatic writers Chris Williams and Rob Gray go back and forth on an array of topics surrounding Iowa State athletics as we enter the year 2015. 

RG: I don’t know about you Chris, but as intriguing as Saturday’s matchup with South Carolina and their “angry coach” (per Georges Niang) in Brooklyn may be, I find my myself looking ahead to the Big 12 season.

I’m talking Kansas, Texas, Oklahoma and Baylor in particular.

I’m not buying TCU until the Horned Frogs actually play somebody, but am still impressed by their rise.So I believe it could legitimately be a five-team race for the title the Jayhawks have won at least a share of for 10 straight seasons — though I know some aren’t buying the Bears, either.

Time, as always, will tell.

We’ll learn a lot about the No. 9 Cyclones (how good can Jameel McKay make the defense as he continues to dunk his rust off? Can Naz Long keep filling it up from the perimeter at such a hot rate? Can Niang stay out of foul trouble?) in the early portion of conference play, in my opinion.

The Tuesday home opener against Oklahoma State should be chalked up as a win, but back-to-back road games at West Virginia and Baylor scare me a bit.

Then it’s Kansas and Kansas State at home — and I don’t see ISU dropping a game in Hilton this season.

So my thought is if the Cyclones can win at least one of those first two road games, they should start the Big 12 slate at 4-1. That should keep them in the top 10 and possibly allow then to emerge as the front-runner with a big game at Texas looming a week later.

I think the key to becoming and remaining “the hunted” hinges on Monte Morris and his continued ability to efficiently and explosively run the offense. If nothing changes there, the next three months should be a helluva ride.

What say you, CW?

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CW: Yeah, I can’t really argue any of that, Rob. I especially agree with your analysis of the two road games to begin Big 12 play. This is a meat-grinder of a league and there is no shame in splitting at West Virginia and at Baylor. In fact, I’d be willing to bet that the Cyclones will be slight underdogs at West Virginia on Jan. 10 – and that’s okay. Bob Huggins’ crew (12-1) – in my opinion – has been the biggest surprise of the young season in the Big 12. I’m not totally bought in as the Mountaineers haven’t exactly faced a daunting schedule so far but regardless, they are better than I thought they would be. 

You mentioned Iowa State’s Big 12 opener against Oklahoma State. Did you know that the Cowboys recently lost to Iowa State’s next opponent – South Carolina – 75-49 on Dec. 6 (ouch)? While we’re talking common opponents, Oklahoma State also dropped a 73-64 defeat to Maryland on Dec. 21. 

To the larger point, I have Iowa State pegged to be 12-2 when Kansas comes to town on Jan. 17. ESPN’s "GameDay" pretty much has to show up for that one, right?

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 RG: No doubt, Chris. I would expect “GameDay” even if there’s an extra loss mixed in there — and an extra cramped Pete Taylor Media Room, to boot.

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CW: You’re telling me. I show up a good hour and a half to two hours before tip sometimes and have trouble finding a seat, but that’s irrelevant. 

I think Iowa State will earn the GameDay spot too. Why shouldn’t it? The Cyclones are a legitimate top 15 program hosting a blue blood. On top of that, Hilton Coliseum consistently produces one of the top atmospheres (despite the Jock Jams, of course) in all of college basketball. 

For a decade now, I’ve seen Iowa State’s marketing department go crazy (in a good way) with a lot less. Can you imagine the red carpet that the Cyclone Nation would roll out for Jay Bilas and friends? 

If that indeed does go down, GameDay being in Ames would without question be one of the top stories of 2015. That’s the sign of the program taking another step in the right direction. 

Speaking of that, football needs to take two or three steps forward next season. It has to, otherwise I doubt Paul Rhoads will be here in 2016. I mean, Iowa State’s President pretty much said so a few weeks ago. 

The program has being doing fairly well on the recruiting trail as of late. Rob, what do you see happening in the near future with the Iowa State football program? Or, what has to happen in your opinion for the Cyclones to make a bowl game in 2016? 

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RG: Gotta ditch the Jock Jams. But you’re right: Atmosphere is incredible. As Fred Hoiberg says, sometimes it feels like the ground’s shaking. That’s magic, folks. 

Now, on to football.

I originally thought that reaching a bowl game would be an absolute must for Rhoads and his staff and I mostly still believe that. I think if they were to barely fall short in a flukey way, though (hello, Big 12 refs), that would still amount to drastic improvement over the last two seasons — and perhaps enough reason to see if a true breakthrough could come in 2016.

 As far as recruiting, obviously the Demond Tucker signing is huge, maybe even monumental. If he’s truly a legit No. 1 or No. 2 JUCO DT (as different recruiting sites peg him as), he could be a consistent game-changer along that defensive front that’s been sorely lacking one. Cory Morrissey was a good player, but having little to no push in the middle limited his ability to get to quarterbacks. If Tucker, along with fellow JUCO Bobby Leath and the returning guys can disrupt things, the defense should be considerably improved as long as linebackers come along and the unit’s strength — the defensive backfield — moves from a collective good to very good. 

As for the offense, diamond-in-the-rough (the Cyclones hope) JUCO G/C Patrick Scoggins could make an immediate impact on a line that will have to try to find success without the stalwart Tom Farniok leading the way. 

In my opinion, ISU will have to ditch its “run-first” philosophy completely if new guys up front (tackle Jacob Gannon also graduated) aren’t both big AND mobile. The mobility part of that equation is huge. Big non-mobile guys can ably pass block if their technique’s sound. Leading the way for runs is another story. The Cyclone are replete with weapons at wide receiver as Quenton Bundrage comes back to enhance his NFL Draft stock. Obviously (to me), Sam Richardson’s a good to very good quarterback when healthy and reasonably well-protected. So I’m calling for some “Air Mangino” early and often — unless the line shows it can consistently carve out holes for DeVondrick Nealy and company. 

Bowl game? Why not? It’s crazy to think that even with the handful of utter demoralizing blowout losses ISU has sustained the last two seasons (combined 5-19), several more wins were there for the taking if clutch performers would have emerged at key times.  K-State this season? Should have been a win. Texas? Same story. Texas Tech? Yup.  That’s a lot of woulda, shoulda, coulda, but in Rhoads’ first four seasons, those opportunities were almost always converted — and a big upset or two dotted the schedule, too. 

With more talent (again) supposedly peppering the roster, there’s no reason to think getting bowl eligible is an impossible task. Is it probable? No. But eminently possible if good breaks begin to outnumber the bad.  Your thoughts, young man?

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CW: I’ll agree with you on the JUCO’s but man, I just won’t trust these guys until I see some production on a Saturday this fall. Iowa State has just been burned too many times. Remember the hype surrounding Jordan Harris (who will start at MLB in 2015) last year? He didn’t contribute. On the defensive line, Terry Ayeni and Gabe Luna got hurt and never saw the field. Up front on offense, Wendell Taiese was a non-factor. 

Now, that’s not to say that a guy like Tucker won’t contribute. Here’s one of the top-ranked JUCO DT’s in America. The guys I listed above didn’t come in with those types of accolades – not in the slightest. 

To me though Rob, it’s guys like Ayeni and Harris that should give Iowa State fans the most hope about the 2015 defense. The newcomers will be nice but it’s the guys who have been in the program that will provide depth and in my opinion, make or break Iowa State’s defensive success next season. 

As far as the offense goes, as long as we see some improvement from the offensive line, I’ll be surprised if that unit isn’t vastly improved compared to what we saw in 2014. Last year’s offense looked great at times but wasn’t consistent at all. At the end of the day, the Cyclones finished 2014 ranked 99th overall in scoring offense and 108th when it comes to running the ball. U-G-L-Y. No team in the Big 12 can put up those types of numbers and expect to win – and it all starts up front. 

Rob, cheers to a happy 2015. If all goes to plan, Hoiberg’s basketball program will provide some great moments over the next few months. 

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RG: Yes, it should be a splendid — that’s right, splendid — next couple of months. I’m truly excited to see how well big Georges and BDJ “carry” the Cyclones when needed. I think they’re a special kind of clutch in that regard, but we’ll see. Can’t wait! Now where did I put my cane …

C

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