Predictions for the 2020-21 Iowa State men’s basketball season

Mar 14, 2019; Kansas City, MO, USA; Iowa State Cyclones head coach Steve Prohm yells during the second half of the quarterfinals of the Big 12 conference tournament against the Baylor Bears at Sprint Center. Mandatory Credit: Amy Kontras-USA TODAY Sports

Cyclone Fanatic publisher Chris Williams and managing editor Jared Stansbury plus contributors Brent Blum and Kirk Haaland share their predictions for the Cyclones’ 2020-21 men’s basketball season below.

Who is your preseason-MVP for this year’s Cyclones?

CW: My initial thought was to go with Jalen Coleman-Lands or Rasir Bolton simply because they will have the ball in their hands so often. But upon thinking more about this tough question, I’ll say Solomon Young. The senior has shown that when healthy, he can be one of the top big men in the Big 12. This Iowa State team – which is full of newcomers – needs a true leader to establish himself early in the season. He’s soft-spoken, but Young’s experience and spotless reputation demands the respect of his teammates. He won’t lead Iowa State in scoring and maybe not even on the glass, but in order for the Cyclones to max out, we need to see the best version of Solomon Young. 

Stanz: The easy answer here would be Rasir Bolton, but I think it will end up being Jalen Coleman-Lands. The transfer from DePaul brings experience, length and skill on the wing that the team did not have last season. I also expect him to be the team’s vocal leader and energy givers, which will be crucial considering there will not be fans at many of the games this season.

Blum: Hard to believe perhaps, but Rasir Bolton was 7th in the entire Big 12 in scoring a year ago and of those returning this season only Baylor’s Butler and Oklahoma’s Reaves averaged more points. He slid under the radar because of Haliburton and a poor season record-wise, but Rasir can score in bunches and gets to the line a lot for a guy his size. He has the potential to be a 17 point plus a game scorer with this year’s team and be a real catalyst. If he can pair that with a more dedicated effort on defense, he has first team All-Big 12 potential.

Kirk: With all of the uncertainty with this college basketball season there is nearly just as much uncertainty with this roster, even if you try to pin down the “best player” on the team. Based on what we have seen (and more importantly, not seen) you could probably make an argument for any of Rasir Bolton, Solomon Young, Jalen Coleman-Lands, Tyler Harris, and… who knows, maybe even Javan Johnson. We just know so little about so many guys and the two that we have seen wearing Cyclone uniforms are not really first option type guys. In one sense, having it be a collective effort on any given night can be a positive but for the most part that approach doesn’t lend itself to success because you need at least one dude that defenses fear, one dude that can get a shot at any moment, and for what I know right now the Cyclones do not have that guy. Based on what we do know and what we have seen, I think the nod should go to Bolton but like I said… a lot of uncertainty.

Who do you peg as this year’s breakout player for ISU?

CW: My hope is that by the end of the year, freshman guard Jaden Walker will be a guy we talk about in the offseason as being Iowa State’s next NBA Draft pick. Not wishing his career away, and I fear for putting too high of expectations on the young man. But at 6-foot-5, 200-pounds, Walker appears to have all of the tools to be Steve Prohm’s next point guard protégée in the Association. He’s still coming off of a bad knee injury from high school so I suspect this might take some time. But that’s my pick. 

Stanz: Javan Johnson could end up with a really important role for the Cyclones this winter, especially if they try to play small the majority of the time. He will be tasked with being the de facto four and guarding bigs on most nights. How well he handles that will be the biggest thing for that lineup, but his offensive skillset should create mismatch opportunities for Iowa State on the other end.

Blum: Javan Johnson is the obvious choice here. Iowa State needs him to be good to have a chance as he provides that versatile piece that can allow Iowa State to preferably play small. Iowa State needs him to be the next  point forward type, like Niang, Burton and Weiler-Babb/THT before him.

Kirk: The thing about that first bit of rambling that possibly came off as negative is that there is no shortage of guys that could fit this bill. I think Tyler Harris is an interesting candidate because of the type of player he could be while knocking down a high clip of 3-pointers. If there is anything Iowa State fans love, it is an underdog that is also undersized and at 5-9, that description fits Harris to a “T”. But if I have to bet, my money is going on Coleman-Lands, the mature guy with a load of experience at the high major level in both the Big Ten and Big East. He has potential to shoot it well from the outside and be a calming presence on the floor. Much of the need to create will be filled by Bolton but Coleman-Lands will have to be the partner in crime in the backcourt.

Iowa State will have a successful 2020-21 season if…

CW: A lot of things need to come together so it’s difficult to pick just one. But I’d say Rasir Bolton needs to establish himself as a “bucket getter” with the ball in his hands. He showed glimpses last year but Rasir needs to bring it every night. I like what Tyler Harris is going to bring long term and think Jalen Coleman-Lands will be solid. But to me, Bolton is the wildcard. The best version of him could put Iowa State in the NCAA Tournament.

Stanz: The team is able to find some sort of identity and guys are able to slide into set roles rather quickly. This team will not have much of a runway to gel before Big 12 play starts. How well guys adjust to each other despite that fact will be big. On the point of identity, the Cyclones need to figure out what they do really well. That was one of the biggest things last year’s team lacked. Find that thing early and it could be a fun season, search for it all winter and it will be a long one.

Blum: The Cyclones establish an identity for the next two years. This is going to be a messed up season in so many ways so it’s hard to put a hard and fast rule on it, but if Iowa State can feel better about it’s group at the end of March than it does now by building a core that can make a run in the two years following, that’s a success in my book. 

Kirk: I was watching some old games and highlights from the early 2010’s a couple weeks back and I was reminded of how enjoyable it was to watch those teams. Not because they were perfect, not because they were better than some of the teams later in the decade but I think my enjoyment primarily came from my lower expectations at the time and the excitement to be competing. In the 2011-12 and 2012-13 seasons you had a bunch of unique pieces that were considered “misfits” all blended together to play an exciting brand of high paced basketball. While the transfer market and perception is so much different now there seems to be some of those similar pieces in play again this season. The 2013 team specifically was essentially returning Melvin Ejim, Chris Babb, and Tyrus McGee who were all good players but at that time none of them were the type to build a roster around. It was the infusion of Korie Lucious, Will Clyburn, and an unknown and unorthodox freshman, Georges Niang, that unlocked that team’s potential. This will be a messed up season in general and who knows how many games are played but it will be a success if this team competes on a game by game basis and can finish middle of the pack in the league. What we have heard out of Steve Prohm so far is that the makeup of this team feels more the way it should. Despite the roster largely being undersized the pieces can fit together and potential is there to play fast paced and have more capable guys to knock down shots.

Iowa State will not have a successful 2020-21 season if…

CW: The roster turnover and lack of a real non-conference season proves to be too much adversity for a team that will need time to develop chemistry. This is a team that really could have used a couple of scrimmages with real officials and some laugher games in Hilton. I’m concerned that going from the preseason right into Big 12 play could provide problems. However, Iowa State is hardly alone in this scenario. 

Stanz: Guys aren’t able to find comfort in their roles and the team fails to find a solid identity. This team appears to have more talent on paper than last season, but we don’t really know yet how well it all fits together. If it turns out the fit is poor, it will be a long year with more losses than wins.

Blum: The Cyclones show no growth. The talent on this year’s roster should be upgraded from a year ago. That should be evident, but look forward to seeing that on the floor.

Kirk: It is a little too easy to remember the disappointment of last season and probably too easy to discount that the #14 pick in the 2020 NBA draft didn’t play after February 8th. The tone of that season had already been determined by early struggles but flashes of potential were there in five Big 12 wins. Many of the problems last year were evident in the constant shuffling of the rotation and starting lineup in that very few guys were able to step up and play well enough to make for an easy decision for the coaching staff. Nothing was working so the coaches had to continually tinker and plug in new guys in slightly different ways. Other than the wins and losses, the biggest indicator for how this season will go is if guys grab their spots and earn their minutes with consistent production. If that happens, a level of comfort can settle in and guys can begin to develop and succeed in their individual roles. If that doesn’t happen this season will likely play out the same as the last.

Where do you expect the Cyclones to end their season?

CW: The good news is that with the non-conference being so slimmed down this year, it won’t be hard for a team playing a Big 12 schedule to develop some pretty solid analytics with a few good wins. The bad news is that as I noted above, I think this roster will need some time to hit its stride. I see Iowa State as an NIT team in 2020-21. My goal for this team this year is to see enough from a solid group of freshmen and other players to truly be excited about making a serious run at not only the NCAA Tournament, but to be a Big 12 threat in 2021-22.

Stanz: In my mind, the ceiling for this team is probably to challenge for the middle of the Big 12 and be around the bubble in March. This is just unfortunately a really tough year to have to be adjusting a bunch of guys to new roles on the fly because the Big 12 is LOADED. Could the Cyclones make the tournament? Sure. But, I think it is more likely they end up in the NIT or not in the postseason at all.

Blum: My expectations are to be much more competitive than a year ago. The Big 12 is loaded, however, so will be a challenge to get into the upper half from a win/loss standpoint and who knows what the tournament landscape will even look like due to covid. I believe this team will trend towards a higher ceiling and some new players will emerge that are part of Iowa State’s foundation to get back where it belongs.  

Kirk: I know nothing, but there is somewhat of a chance that with Iowa State’s four guard lineup you could see Bolton, Coleman-Lands, Jackson, and Harris on the court which would give you four guards at 6-3, 6-4, 6-1, and 5-9. For high major, or really even mid major basketball, that is a tiny lineup of guards. Even if you plug in a bigger freshman guard or Javan Johnson at 6-7 in one of those spots they would still be woefully undersized. That can create issues on the offensive end but the achilles heel there is really on defense, especially around the rim. But the good news is you don’t play defense with your height you play with your feet. If the lack of size can be compensated for with details and pressure on the perimeter they can begin to overcome some of the size deficiencies. That, and whoever the choice is to be the big in those four guard lineups will have to play huge in the lane but also play smart and under control. Less of an emphasis on blocking shots and more of an emphasis on holding position for the subsequent rebound. All of that is said because the defense, along with outside shooting, will be the greatest determining factors for this season. My expectation is for them to play with a high level of pace and effort that a full Hilton Coliseum loves in a year when Hilton Coliseum is forced to be closer to empty. In the conference standings, I think they can sneak into the 5th or 6th place slots if things go really well but if I was putting money on it I’d likely peg them for an 8th place finish. Disappointing, but this is a “get right” year for a team that has pieces to improve and set the stage for the future.

Jared Stansbury


Jared a native of Clarinda, Iowa, started as the Cyclone Fanatic intern in August 2013, primarily working as a videographer until starting on the women’s basketball beat prior to the 2014-15 season. Upon earning his Bachelor’s degree in Journalism and Mass Communication from Iowa State in May 2016, Jared was hired as the site’s full-time staff writer, taking over as the primary day-to-day reporter on football and men’s basketball. He was elevated to the position of managing editor in January 2020. He is a regular contributor on 1460 KXNO in Des Moines and makes regular guest appearances on radio stations across the Midwest. Jared resides in Ankeny with his four-year-old puggle, Lolo.

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