Clayton Custer paused and allowed the question to cycle through his mind.
More than 10 seconds of silence followed the inquiry I had posed to end our phone interview late last week.
“Man, that’s a good question,” Custer, the one-time Cyclone and eventual NCAA Tournament hero at Loyola-Chicago, said. Five more seconds of silence.
“That’s a really good question.”
Another pause… The question I asked, one Iowa State fans have asked time-and-time again, and one I felt Custer is uniquely capable of answering even in a hypothetical sense, continued to hang in the air.
Was Iowa State’s 2014-15 team good enough to match Custer’s 2017-18 Ramblers squad’s feat and make a run to the Final Four?
Custer certainly was not a stranger to the recruiting process by the time Fred Hoiberg called his phone to extend a scholarship offer as part of the 2014 recruiting cycle. I mean, how could Custer be a stranger to it when his list of AAU teammates included names such as Willie Cauley-Stein, Semi Ojelye and Shavon Shields?
All three of those players went on to play major conference college basketball. Cauley-Stein became an NBA lottery pick after being one of the most highly-touted high school players in the country and a standout career at Kentucky. Ojelye has found a spot in the NBA following stops at Duke and, most notably, SMU. Shields, the least touted of that trio, became one of the best players Nebraska has seen in the last decade and was crucial in the program’s run to the 2014 NCAA Tournament.
To put it simply, Custer had a pretty easy job when it came to playing AAU basketball alongside players of that caliber.
“All I really had to do, not trying to sell myself short, but all I had to do was be the point guard, floor general and I was young (playing 17U on the AAU circuit),” Custer said. “Just kind of hard to set guys up and make plays for other guys. I was able to get seen a lot because pretty much every school in the country was recruiting Willie Cauley-Stein at that time. I think he got offered by every school in the country.”
And thus, enter Hoiberg, the Cyclones’ head coach at the time and, arguably, the most recognizable Iowa Stater of the last 30 years. He was one of the many coaches whose eyes were drawn towards the 6-foot-0 floor general tasked with setting up some of the best players in the state of Kansas.
“I actually didn’t know much about him. I didn’t realize how big-time he was,” Custer said. “Obviously, after I got off the phone with him, I did my research and I was like, ‘Wow, this guy’s big time.’ There’s a reason why they call him The Mayor in Ames.”
Custer was a steadying force alongside the immense talent on the AAU courts, but he had proven to be a star in his own right for Blue Valley Northwest High School, leading the program to a 94-6 record and a pair of state titles during a four-year stretch. The smooth-shooting floor-general was a three-time first-team All-Class 6A selection in Kansas and was the state’s Gatorade Player of the Year as a senior.
He narrowed his list of college choices to Iowa State and Oklahoma State, ultimately choosing the program led by the head coach he didn’t realize was “big-time” until after their first phone conversation.
“I just felt comfortable with Fred,” Custer said. “I loved Coach (Travis) Ford at Oklahoma State, absolutely loved him. I just felt at home in Ames and respected Coach Hoiberg. I got pretty close with Matt Thomas. We built a pretty good relationship before I made the decision as well. The combination of Matt, Hoiberg and also getting to know Georges (Niang) and Naz (Mitrou-Long) before I got there too was what kind of pushed me over the edge.”
With Custer signed on prior to his senior season, the Cyclones’ future at the point guard spot seemed to be set. He could focus on capping off his high school career in the best way possible, which, as previously mentioned, he most certainly did, before turning his eyes towards Ames and another roster stocked with talent in need of a floor general.
“It was pretty special the amount of amazing talent we had on that (2014-15) team,” Custer said. “You’ve got Abdel (Nader) coming off the bench for pretty much the entire year. You’ve got Matt Thomas, who is the best shooter I’ve ever played with, he’s one of the best shooters in the world, in my opinion, and he’s coming off the bench. Obviously, it was just an extremely talented team. It made me a ton better my freshman year.”
That cupboard of talent appeared to be even more full when during Custer’s senior season in 2013-14, a skinny guard from Flint, Mich. burst onto the scene playing alongside the Cyclones’ senior graduate transfer point guard DeAndre Kane. Sure, Monte Morris broke the NCAA’s single-season record for assist-to-turnover ratio, but, from Custer’s perspective, he’d played largely off the ball as a freshman, which should still leave the door open for Custer to step in as a freshman and fill a hole left by Kane’s departure.
“Monte had the ball in his hands some, but for the most part, DeAndre Kane was the guy making plays and bringing the ball up the court,” Custer said. “When Monte came in, he was almost more playing off the ball. At least that’s how I remember it. That’s what I remember thinking during my senior year. So, it definitely crossed my mind that he could make plays and was a good player. I couldn’t tell if he was more of a point guard or a two-guard.”
“He ended up being the most pure point guard that you could ever create.”
That was the realization all of us, including Custer upon his arrival in Ames, had in 2014-15. With Kane moved on to the professional ranks, Morris solidified himself as one of the best point guards in America, ultimately becoming the program’s all-time leader in assists and steals after a four-year career that has propelled him into being one of the NBA’s best backup point guards with the Denver Nuggets.
“It was just a tough situation,” Custer said. “I don’t even know if the coaches at Iowa State knew he was going to end up being that good of a pure point guard. I think they were recruiting me fully expecting me to be able to play when I first got there or at least get some minutes. Monte’s growth and how gritty and good he was was going to make it tough for me to make a big enough impact that I wanted to make until my junior or senior year.”
So, after just one season with the program, Custer made the decision to move on. Despite playing in just 12 games, averaging 1.1 points in 5.8 minutes, it was still a year that came with lasting memories.
“My favorite memory was probably that first exhibition game. I was still full of hope,” Custer, whose preseason preparation that season was cut short by mono, said. “I was super excited about that exhibition game because I still thought I was going to get to help the team. It was my first time playing in Hilton Coliseum and I was just so excited about it. It was so cool getting to play in front of that many people. The first time we checked in, making some shots in that first game, it was the one time in Hilton when I got to kind of experience playing in the first half and a decent amount of minutes, getting the full experience of being a player at Iowa State.”
That season also allowed Custer the opportunity to be in a collegiate uniform in his hometown of Kansas City at the Sprint Center, first during the regular-season CBE event and then at the Big 12 Tournament, which the Cyclones won for the second consecutive year.
It also made an impact on Custer that lasted throughout the rest of his collegiate career.
“I’m a big believer that everything happens for a reason. I’m glad I went there,” Custer said. “I got a lot better as a basketball player while I was there. Iron sharpens iron. I wasn’t getting to play as much, but I was competing with those guys in practice. I was trying to beat them every day. I think I got a lot better playing against Monte every day in practice… I’ll never have any hard feelings towards Iowa State or anything like that. I feel blessed that I had the opportunity to go there for that year because I built some relationships and also just how much better it made me playing against all those guys every day in practice.”
The 2014-15 season also set the stage for my hypothetical that made Custer pause and then pause again. But we’ll come back to that.
After leaving Iowa State, Custer eventually landed at Loyola-Chicago, playing for head coach Porter Moser, and alongside former high school teammate Ben Richardson. He sat out the 2015-16 season then emerged as a major piece of Loyola’s program in 2016-17, recording 11.6 points, 2.4 rebounds and 3.0 assists per game.
The real breakout came in 2017-18 when Custer was awarded the Larry Bird Trophy, given to the Missouri Valley Conference Player of the Year. He averaged 13.2 points, dished 4.1 assists and shot better than 45 percent from 3-point range while leading the Ramblers to Missouri Valley Conference regular-season and tournament titles and a No. 11 seed in the NCAA Tournament.
Oh, the honorable mention Associated Press All-American also knocked down one of the biggest shots in recent NCAA Tournament history, a buzzer-beater to lifter the Ramblers past No. 3 seed Tennessee and into the Sweet 16, and became a household name across college basketball while helping the program reach its first Final Four since 1963.
“It’s so crazy because, obviously, I knew we could be good when I went to Loyola. I wouldn’t have gone there if I didn’t think we could be good,” Custer said. “I figured let’s go try to make the NCAA Tournament. Let’s just try to make the NCAA Tournament. That should be the goal. Just the fact that we came together and we were able to do what we did, it’s just amazing. It’s cool for all of us. I think it showed that a lot of our hard work paid off. I think it kind of showed that if you work hard and you put your whole heart and soul into something, you can do some cool things. Obviously, all that stuff will always be in March Madness history books from now on for being one of the great Cinderella stories of all-time.”
Custer helped the Ramblers win a share of the MVC regular-season title again in 2018-19, but his senior season could not quite match the historic run from the year prior, which I mean, how could it?
After college, Custer went on to play part of a professional season in Poland before returning to the states and putting an end to his days of playing competitive basketball.
“I’m glad I did it. I think I would have regretted at least not giving it a shot. Now, I can say I at least gave it a shot and played professional hoops for a short period of time,” Custer said. “It was a good experience. I had to kind of throw myself into a new culture and got to meet some cool Polish guys on my team out there, which was a fun deal. I don’t know. I just don’t think it was for me. I didn’t love it over there. They actually ended up buying me out of my contract. They signed a Polish point guard, who was on the Polish national team. Kind of a big name of there so it changed things over there for me. It was good. I’m happy to be back in America though.”
So, now, back to the question.
Was Iowa State’s 2014-15 men’s basketball team, the one that included seven future NBA players on its scholarship roster and saw its season ended prematurely due to an NCAA Tournament first-round loss to No. 14 seed UAB, good enough to make a run at the Final Four?
Who better to answer that question than a man who played on that team before seeing his Final Four dreams materialize in another program? Who better to answer than someone who knows a thing or two about being in the NCAA Tournament history books?
“If that team that we had played offense the way that they were capable of playing offense, I think we could have made a Final Four that year,” Custer said. “I just think it was a fragile team in the sense that if we weren’t scoring, defensively, we were not going to stop a lot of people. I think the way we made our run (at Loyola), obviously, we were way less talented, we were not nearly as good on the offensive end, but we were efficient, we took good shots and we really guarded. We played good defense. I think that Iowa State had the capability to do that that year if we were consistently making shots the way that we did sometimes. Sometimes it was pretty incredible offensive showings that we would put on, but it’s hard to play good offense for four straight games. I think, to answer the question, yes, we were capable of making the Final Four that year.”