AMES — It isn’t any secret Iowa State basketball has liked to play fast during the past several seasons. The Cyclones finished the season No. 11 nationally in KenPom’s adjusted tempo in 2014 then No. 10 in 2015.
Despite having a higher number of possessions per 40 minutes in 2016, the Cyclones dipped back to No. 61 in the category. Iowa State’s offense was among the most efficient in the country in 2015-16 (they finished the season No. 7 in adjusted offense), but suddenly other teams were playing even faster.
Now, Iowa State head coach Steve Prohm is hoping his squad can play faster, too.
“I think we need to play a little faster,” Prohm told a pool of reporters before the Cyclones’ fifth practice of the season on Tuesday. “Getting the ball up the floor and keeping the ball moving, because we are smaller.”
How can a team that already averages 71.5 possessions per 40 minutes play even faster, you ask? It starts at point guard. In this case, it starts with senior floor general Monte Morris.
The 6-foot-3-inch Morris will already be saddled with taking on a much bigger role during his final season in Ames. His scoring will need to increase, his defense will have to improve and his leadership will have to grow.
On top of all that, he needs to pick up the pace.
“I think the pace that he’s playing at now is really, really good,” Prohm said. “That’s what everybody always asks, ‘Monte always plays at one speed. Can we ramp it up?’ He can ramp it and that’s what my biggest challenge to him is.”
Luckily, Morris won’t be asked to play 38 minutes per game like he was as a junior. The addition of junior college transfer Donovan Jackson is expected to help keep Morris from breaking down over the long season.
Jackson will be able to to give Morris much-needed breathers during games, while at the same time providing the serious challenger in practice that Morris hasn’t had since DeAndre Kane graduated in 2014.
“The good thing about having a kid like Donovan in now, is (Monte) can’t slack off when they’re going against each other,” Prohm said. “Donovan can put some points on the board in a hurry. Monte’s focus, I think, from a day-to-day effort standpoint in practice on the defensive end is really good. Those are the biggest areas he needs to grow in and he’s doing that.”
Jackson’s presence could also provide a new lineup wrinkle that allows Morris to play off-the-ball. In theory, that could be another way in which to save Morris’ energy and body from the beating of bringing the ball down the floor on every possession.
“Donovan’s a playmaker so when he comes in, if I’m still in, I’ll go to the two,” Morris said. “If I get the rebound, he’ll run the lane. If he closest to the ball, he’s going to push it. It won’t be a problem with him coming in, because he can shoot the ball at a high clip and he can facilitate.”
Back to the topic of pace, there’s one other intriguing way the Cyclones might force teams to speed up the game — a full court press.
“There might be sometimes in a game where we might go 2-2-1, 1-2-1-1, man-to-man jump full court, things like that,” Morris said.
Naz Mitrou-Long feeling better than ever
It was clear early on last season that Naz Mitrou-Long didn’t look like himself. Coming off of double hip surgery, he didn’t have the same explosiveness or mobility that fans had grown used to during his sophomore and junior seasons.
That’s why it wasn’t overly surprising when he shut it down after just eight games last season in order to seek a medical redshirt. After a few days of practice, that seems to have been a good decision.
“I feel amazing,” Mitrou-Long said. “It’s the best I’ve felt. I have mobility I never had. I’m just working hard. I’m always in the gym. Now that I’m graduated, I have a little bit more time. I still have some classes, but I can get here early and get here a little bit before other guys do. So I’m just putting all my focus into the gym, man. I feel amazing.”
Mitrou-Long, a career 38 percent 3-point shooter, is one of the headliners of Iowa State’s backcourt that, on paper, figures to be one of the best in college basketball. A lot of that will hinge on whether or not he’s feeling like his former self and the guy that averaged 10.1 points as a junior.
“Man, it was like a kid in a candy store,” Mitrou-Long said about getting back on the court. “When something that you love, genuinely love, your whole life’s been built around, gets taken away from you, you know, that’s your passion, your heart and soul, I mean, I was crushed when that happened. Then when I got it back, everything thing was revamped. We had a long practice yesterday. It was a three hour practice. Vic asked me if I was tired or if I felt anything and I was like, ‘I don’t know what it is, but just the chance to be able to practice with the guys and play, you know, my adrenaline got me through it.’ I’m ready to have another three hour one today if we have to. I mean that. It’s nothing but joy and excitement. I’ve got my love back.”
Solomon Young impressing early-on
Iowa State has a lot of production to fill in the front court after the losses of Georges Niang, Jameel McKay and Abdel Nader, but there are a handful of guys proving they’re capable of helping.
True freshman Solomon Young is one player that Prohm, Morris and Mitrou-Long all mentioned as being able to jump in and fill a role this season. The 6-foot-8-inch, 240-pound former three-star recruit has been excelling early-on in his Iowa State career.
“I think with the physicality, he’s ready to play,” Prohm said. “So now we just got to teach him, ‘Hey, this is what we need from you offensively. This is what we need from you defensively and this is how you’re going to get on the floor.’ He’s a freshman, because of his physicality and because of his size, that could play early minutes.”
Young, a Sacramento native, won’t be expected to average 20 points per game or really anywhere close, but the Cyclones just need him to bring a physical presence to be reckoned with. That means rebounding, defending, hustling and scoring when he gets chances.
Really, that’s all the Cyclones will need from their front court guys in 2016-17. It doesn’t matter if it is graduate transfers Merrill Holden and Darrell Bowie or sophomore Simeon Carter.
“We got guys that can make shots,” Prohm said. “We got guys who can score. We need energy. We need defense. We need rebounding. I think Merrill and Solomon yesterday did a great job with that. Darrell Bowie is very, very active, so those three guys have got to continue to push and challenge. Then, hopefully, Simeon can slowly come along. Those three guys, I think, their energy level has been really, really good.”
Nick Babb ready to make an impact after sitting out last season
People surrounding the Iowa State basketball program have been bringing up Nick Babb’s name as a player to watch since he arrived on campus before last season.
The 6-foot-4-inch guard was by all accounts impressive during his redshirt season and likely would’ve found his way into the team’s regular rotation. Now in 2016-17, he is primed to step into some kind of role.
“He can make coaches look good, because everything can screw up and he’s got 6-4 and he’s got good size and athleticism, he can just go make a play,” Prohm said. “Defensively, I think, he can shut guys down. Offensively, you can play him at a lot of different positions. He can handle it, he can shoot it, he can pass it.”
Mitrou-Long called him “special” and “more athletic than he knows.” Morris, jokingly, I think, said he’s a better shooter than his brother, NBA player, and former Cyclone, Chris.
There’s no doubt he could be setting up for a big debut season.
“Sometimes you gotta tell him to wake up,” Morris said. “But if he’s always woke, you’ll get a good show from him every night.”