BLUM: Bench gunners

The pieces are coming together for Cyclone Basketball. It took three and a half months of trial and error, anxious moments and unfortunate losses to South Carolina and Texas Tech, but here we are in late February and Hoiball is feeling the flow. Everything is back on the table for this bunch and March is right around the corner.

Iowa State faced a fork in the road following the loss to Oklahoma on February 9th. After giving up 94 points on the road and falling into fourth place in the conference, Iowa State’s run at a Big 12 title appeared dead and gone. Tough conversations were held in the Sukup practice facility, roles were in flux and so was the season. Iowa State was running out of learning opportunities.

Two weeks later and Iowa State is rolling. The roles have cemented and the wins have followed. It starts with Jameel McKay getting comfortable as a starter, but just as important has been the way the bench dudes have relished their opportunities to succeed. Iowa State’s core of eight has never been stronger.

Matt Thomas slinging his way to a career high 17 points in Austin was the latest barrage from the bench. In the first half against Texas, the bench outscored the starters 18 to 17. And during Iowa State’s second half run that elevated a three point lead to 11, both Georges Niang and Monte Morris were sitting on the bench. It showcased the mythical depth that was the chatter of the off-season.

Since being moved to a non-starting role five games ago, Bryce Dejean-Jones has scored in double figures three times and has shot 50 percent from the floor and 50 percent from three during that time frame. Abdel Nader has exploded for 16 or more points on three occasions off the bench and provided a versatile jolt on the defensive end of the court. When most teams go to the bench, they try to buy a few minutes and hold down the fort. When Iowa State sends in its reinforcements, they have the ability to torch the opposition.

With Matt Thomas nicknamed "The Iceman," Dejean-Jones and Nader need matching Top Gun monikers. Those three need to embrace the mentality. 

If history is any indicator, the trio of gunners sitting next to Fred Hoiberg to begin games loom large for the Madness approaching. On Iowa State’s most successful teams, depth has doomed them at the most inopportune times.

Only seven Cyclones on the 1997 club that advanced to the Sweet 16 averaged 10 or more minutes per game. In its 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.

In last season’s loss to UConn, only six Cyclones played more than 20 minutes. DeAndre Kane, Dustin Hogue and Monte Morris all played 37 or more minutes. The bench totaled seven points in the loss to the Huskies and just 30 points total during the entirety of the NCAA Tournament. Iowa State obviously was at a disadvantage without Georges Niang for the final two games, but the amount of minutes totaled played a huge role in defeat.

This year’s Cyclones have a rock-solid eight man rotation with ability to go big or small. Iowa State has eight players averaging 15 or more minutes and only Monte Morris is logging more than 30. The legs look fresh and Iowa State is hitting its stride.

The Cyclones can get scoring punch from all eight players and that makes them a nightmare to defend. Unlike last season, Iowa State can afford to have a few guys not at their offensive peak because the bench barrage can pick up the slack. In the twenty point win over West Virginia last week, Naz Long was scoreless and Hogue scored five points. It didn’t matter, the Cyclones still put up 79 points.

Iowa State has had eight different players lead them in scoring this season. That is almost unheard of. 

The only two teams in the current AP top 25 with eight or more men each averaging 15 or more minutes and five plus points are Kentucky and Iowa State.

Iowa State doesn’t necessarily have the assembly line of seven footers of a Kentucky, but like the Wildcats, their punch off the bench gives them a huge advantage. In March, the elite defensive teams can shut down the two or three best options on an oppoising squad, however it is a brutal task to negate eight. 

The talking points of October are coming to fruition. It may not have added up the way we all expected, but this Cyclone team still has all the pieces. Even the defense has been improved in the winning streak.

With the buy-in of the bench gunners, Hoiball has never looked better. Get ready, the Cyclones are locked and loaded for March.