Jan 2, 2021; Glendale, AZ, USA; Iowa State Cyclones head coach Matt Campbell is dunked with Gatorade by his players in the second half of the Fiesta Bowl against the Oregon Ducks at State Farm Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports
Happy Monday, Fanatics!
The 2020-21 spring semester is over and hopefully all the newest alums of Iowa State University have mostly recovered from their celebratory excursions on Welch Ave. over the weekend.
Welcome to this (not so) exclusive club of Cyclone alums. I’m sure your hangover will (probably but maybe not) be gone by the time you receive your first call asking for a donation.
With the 2020-21 school year behind us, it’s time to turn our full and total attention to 2021-22. I have five questions on my mind heading out of the weirdest full school-year in recent memory.
1 — Is Tyrese Hunter even better than we realize?
This one came to the forefront of my mind on Sunday after I learned Hunter was named the MVP of Team Loyalty at the Iverson Classic.
This was an event headlined by the biggest stars in high school basketball. Chet Holmgren showed why he’s the consensus No. 1 recruit in the country while leading his team to a victory and earning that squad’s MVP award.
Team Loyalty featured names like Paolo Banchero, AJ Griffin, JD Davison and Hunter Sallis. Those are four of the top-13 players in 247’s final ranking of the 2021 class, but it was the 6-foot-1 Iowa State signee from Racine, Wis. who stole the show by scoring a team-high 20 points.
Want proof of how explosive an athlete Hunter is? Just look at this video from the event’s dunk contest held on Friday.
This kid has elite athleticism, is highly skilled and seems to have all the mental pieces needed to be an extremely successful point guard at the collegiate level — and soon.
At this point, the only thing that seems to be holding Hunter back from receiving more national attention is his size. That said, he’s the same height as the top point guard in the class, Kennedy Chandler, who came in at No. 8 in Bleacher Report’s newest way-too-early mock 2022 NBA mock draft released late last week.
I’m not saying Hunter will be one-and-done because that would require a pretty remarkable rise, but I’m wondering if this weekend was just a sign of things to come.
There will be many more people talking about Tyrese Hunter — and not just people in Central Iowa — sooner rather than later.
2 — Is this the year football recruiting takes the leap to match the on-field success?
I don’t want anyone to think I’m saying Iowa State has recruited poorly in football the last several years because all you have to do is look at the number of guys who have made immediate impacts on the field to see that isn’t the case.
This question is more about whether or not Iowa State can start to beat out the “big boys” to land more high-level talent that registers on the national scale.
I’m talking about guys like four-star defensive end Mario Eugenio, who will visit Iowa State next month and holds offers from Michigan, Miami, Oregon, Mississippi State and 25-plus other programs.
Or how about four-star wide receiver Greg Gaines. The Tampa native’s offer sheet includes Auburn, Florida State, Georgia, Iowa, Miami, Penn State and South Carolina. He’ll visit Ames next month, too.
Both players are ranked in the top-400 of the class by 247Composite. Both are the types of players Iowa State likely will need to start landing if they want to make contending for conference championships and College Football Playoff berths an annual occurrence rather than once every so often.
Matt Campbell and his staff have proven time and time again that they can win with less. They’re surely going to continue to find diamonds in the rough on the recruiting trail, and that’s what makes them so dang good at what they do.
But we all know the realities of college football and what it takes to compete (and hopefully beat) the baddest dudes on the block consistently. You’ve got to recruit at a high level then develop those guys at a high level, too.
We know for certain this staff can do the latter of those two things.
I think we’re going to find out really soon how much they can continue to elevate their game in the former with exposure to Iowa State football at the highest its ever been and a New Year’s Six Bowl trophy in the new trophy case at the soon-to-be completely refreshed and face-lifted Bergstrom Football Complex.
3 — Can Iowa State wrestling take another step back towards its former glory?
Next year will mark the fifth season since Iowa State went 1-12 in duals and scored one point at the NCAA championships.
The Cyclones have come a long way in four seasons under Kevin Dresser, including David Carr winning the program’s first individual national title since 2015 this past winter. The program seems poised to take another step toward competing at a high level as a team on the national scale, too.
Iowa State returns all but one starter (All-American Gannon Gremmel) from its team that finished 13th at the NCAA Championships in 2021. The hope is the roster as a whole will be healthier than it was this past season as well.
What does a step forward for this program mean at this point?
I’m told by people who know wrestling better than I do that they’re likely to start the season ranked in the top-10 nationally. The Cyclones haven’t finished in the top-10 as a team at the NCAA Championships since they finished third in 2009-10.
That’s a long drought for a storied program like Iowa State wrestling, and reaching that level again sooner rather than later does not seem like an over-inflation of expectations at this point.
Once that hurdle is cleared, then the real work of competing for team trophies (and toppling your arch-rival) begins.
4 — Can the Cyclone women get back to the second weekend?
Speaking of 2009-10, that just so happens to be the last time Iowa State women’s basketball advanced to the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament.
Bill Fennelly’s program came an overtime away from accomplishing that feat this season, but even still, it would have felt like an early arrival when you consider the youth on this roster.
Ashely Joens will be a senior, and I think we can expect the All-American to be on a mission to destroy everything (and everyone) in her path. Lexi Donarski, Emily Ryan and Aubrey Joens will be another year older and wiser after being thrown into the fire as freshmen.
Maggie Espenmiller-McGraw will hopefully be back at full strength after an injury and ailment-plagued 2020-21 season.
The biggest question mark for this roster remains down low. Can Morgan Kane or Maddie Frederick make a jump going into their redshirt junior seasons? What impact can Butler transfer and Sioux City native Nyamer Diew make immediately? Is early-enrollee Canadian freshman Izzi Zingaro ready for the bright lights?
The backcourt is good enough to do extraordinary things. Sweet Sixteen, Elite Eight, you name it. That group of Joens, Donarski, Ryan, Joens and Espenmiller-McGraw can win you a whole bunch of ballgames.
If that group in the frontcourt can come even close to matching the backcourt’s level, it’s the second weekend or bust for the Cyclone women in 2021-22.
5 — Are Iowa State Athletics (as a whole) in a better position for future success today than they were 12 months ago?
This might not necessarily be represented on the financial spreadsheets, but am I crazy for thinking Iowa State is going to come out of the COVID-19 pandemic stronger as an athletic department than they were going into it?
Let me explain…
Football appears to be locked in for continued success as Matt Campbell looks to be committed to building Iowa State football for the long-term. People will continue to call each offseason, but Campbell Watch gets shorter and shorter with less-and-less hand wringing year-after-year.
That program’s brand and reach has never been bigger than it is at this moment. It will only continue to grow if this fall goes the way we all hope it will.
There is excitement around men’s basketball again after T.J. Otzelberger’s return to Ames. Sure, all of that excitement is built off of what’s happened off the floor on the recruiting trail, but the program feels like it has momentum and isn’t just spinning its wheels for the first time in several years.
They’ll have to show progress on the floor, but early returns are encouraging.
We just touched on Bill Fennelly’s team and the fact he’ll probably have his best team in a decade this season. The program seems prepared for sustained success even in life without Ashley Joens starting in 2022-23 due to its best young core since… when?
Wrestling is poised to continue its upward trajectory as well.
On both the men’s and women’s sides, Iowa State cross country remains a monster, and that will always keep them competitive in track and field as well.
Cyclone softball earned national accolades after its hot start to the season behind do-it-all superstar Sami Williams. Williams’ record-breaking career comes to an end after this spring, but that program has more momentum than I can ever remember it having.
We can say the same for Iowa State tennis, which is hot off its first NCAA Tournament appearance in school history. That’s a young program, too, with many pieces returning in 2021-22 to keep things moving forward.
Frankly, those are two sports where I probably never would have even entertained the idea of Iowa State being competitive on a national scale. But, suddenly, after one of the weirdest years in any of our lifetimes, that idea doesn’t seem quite so crazy.
Plus, the man at the top of it all, Jamie Pollard, has locked in an extension to keep him at Iowa State at least through the middle of the decade.
With further facilities upgrades in the works and improvements to current facilities planned, it is hard not to feel bullish on the trajectory of most every Iowa State program at this point in time.
The first full academic year of this decade was certainly a weird one. We learned about and went through a lot of stuff that none of us ever could have anticipated.
Iowa State Athletics was not exempt from any of that, and yet the department emerges appearing as strong as it ever has. When faced with adversity and a time when “adapt or die” became as literal as it ever has, Pollard, his staff and these programs all chose to adapt.
In large part, success followed.
If these are the things Iowa State Athletics can do when facing enormous adversity, just imagine what the future can look like in normal years that (hopefully) don’t include financially and emotionally crippling global pandemics.
If we looked back to 10 years ago at this time and compared the college athletics landscape to what it is now, there’d be some programs that were well below their current standing on the national scale. Those programs used the 2010s to grow and set themselves up for the future.
Who would have thought Clemson football would become the monster it has after the football team went 6-7 and lost to South Florida in the Meineke Car Care Bowl in 2010?
Nobody would have been betting on Clemson to become a power in anything at that point, but a lot can change in a decade.
Vegas doesn’t put out odds on decade-by-decade college athletic department glow ups, but it would be fun if they did just to project out how schools and departments will grow in the coming years.
Someone will be in a much better position 10 years from now than they are right now. That school might not even be someone on our radar at this point. Clemson wouldn’t have been 10 years ago and yet here they are.
All it takes is all the perfect pieces coming together in the right place at the right time and for someone to ask, ‘Why not us?’ So, I’ll ask you…
Why not Iowa State?