With a 89-76 victory over TCU on Saturday, Iowa State finished the regular season in sole possession of 2nd place in Big 12 play, their highest finish under Fred Hoiberg. The win totals have trended upwards in his five seasons in Ames, from 16 to 23 and 28. This year’s team could finish with over 30. Under Hoiberg’s direction, Iowa State has become the most consistent threat to Kansas in the conference, despite not having nearly the same level of recruits.
Everything at Iowa State starts with transfers. No coach in the country has done a better job of adding and incorporating veteran players on an annual basis. It’s a lot like what he did as a front office guy with the Minnesota Timberwolves - he is evaluating 21 and 22-year-olds at positions of need and projecting a year down the road. Hoiberg brought in two guys this year - Jameel McKay and Bryce Dejean-Jones - who give the team a whole new dimension. For the first time in his tenure, he has the horses to compete with the best teams in the country.
At 6’9 215 with a 7’4 wingspan, McKay is one of the best rim protectors in the Big 12. He has the quickness to defend on the perimeter and recover on penetration and the athleticism to play above the rim. He missed the first half of the season due to eligibility issues, but he had no trouble fitting in when he was finally able to get on the floor. Iowa State doesn’t ask McKay to create too much offense, getting shots for him in the pick-and-roll game and dribble penetration as well as pushing the ball after misses.
Dejean-Jones gets the toughest defensive assignments on the perimeter. At 6’6 210 with a 6’9 wingspan, he has prototype size and athleticism for an NBA wing player and can match up with all three perimeter positions at the NCAA level. He has smoothly integrated into both sides of the ball, averaging 11 points, 5 rebounds, 2 assists and 1 steal a game on 49% shooting. Inconsistent three-point shooting (33%) is the only thing holding him back from being drafted.
With Dejean-Jones playing passing lanes and McKay looming at the rim, Iowa State is as athletic as they have ever been. Combine those two with a strong returning core of offensive-minded players who can shoot 3’s and put the ball on the floor and Iowa State can score going defense to offense and run the other team out of the gym. Morris Morris, still only a sophomore, is one of the most underrated PG’s in the country. At 6’2 170, he has a good combination of size and athleticism and he is completely unflappable, averaging 5.4 assists on only 1.2 turnovers a game. Iowa State is at their best when Morris can push the ball in transition, forcing the defense to commit to him and creating open shots for the bevy of shooters around him.
When they are in the halfcourt, they like to give the ball to Georges Niang, a first-team All Big 12 selection and one of the leading contenders for Big 12 Player of the Year. At 6’8 230, he’s a point forward who can stretch the defense out, drive to the rim, post up and find the open man when the defense collapses. What makes Iowa State so dangerous is that everyone in the rotation, with the exception of McKay, has to be defended out to the three-point line. Niang and Morris move the ball and everyone else can shoot, finish and make plays in space.
Iowa State has seven players averaging at least two 3’s a game. They are 2nd in the Big 12 in 3PA’s a game (20.2) and 3p% (38.5%). There’s just no way to guard them - they spread the defense so far apart that there are massive driving lanes for Niang and Morris on every possession. Most importantly, Hoiberg gives everyone on the roster the freedom to be aggressive and look for their own shot, a marked contrast to many college coaches who want to micromanage every single possession.
Iowa State is the antidote to concerns about style of play and lack of offensive execution in the modern college game, a team with one foot in the past (in terms of its willingness to push the ball) and one foot in the future (in terms of the number of three-point shooters). When they are rolling, they are as fun to watch as any team in the country. You can see that in their recent history in the NCAA Tournament - they have needed monumental efforts from the other team to send them home.
In 2012, they were a 7 seed and gave No. 1 Kentucky its toughest test of the Tourney. Powered by a dominant 23 point, 9 rebound and 4 assist performance from Royce White, they even had a brief second-half lead on Anthony Davis & Co. In 2013, they were a 7 seed and lost a 78-75 second-round nail-biter to No. 2 Ohio State, who went on to the Elite Eight. I had money on that game and I’m still bitter about some of the calls Aaron Craft got. In 2014, they were a 3 seed upset 81-76 in the Sweet 16 by No. 7 UConn, the eventual national champions.
There’s a reason those losses all came to elite programs. Those programs feature high-level NBA players, which Iowa State couldn’t defend on their end, and elite athletes who could man-up Iowa State’s best players, negating the advantage of the spread offense. It’s hard to beat the them without a huge collection of future NBA players because Hoiberg’s schemes maximize the talent on hand. If you don’t have the personnel to man-up Iowa State, they are going to spread you out, identify the mismatch and attack. They are NCAA players running an NBA offense.
What McKay and Dejean-Jones give Iowa State is the ability to man-up the best players in the country. If they run into Duke, the have a big man who can match up with Jahlil Okafor and a wing who can run with Justice Winslow. If they run into Wisconsin, they have a guy for Frank Kaminsky and Sam Dekker. Those are the kind of teams you have to beat to get to a Final Four.
Where this year’s team still falls short of those schools is depth. They don’t have another rim protector behind McKay and they don’t have another 3-and-D wing besides Dejean-Jones. They don’t have another PG who can run offense like Morris and they certainly don’t have anyone who can replace Niang’s all-around game. If any of their top players get into foul trouble or have an off night, Iowa State probably won’t be able to outlast one of those programs (or possibly two) in a Sweet 16 and then an Elite 8 game.
That’s how it goes when you don’t consistently brings in McDonald’s All-Americans every season. Iowa State isn’t a have-not, but they certainly aren’t a have like Kansas, the one program in the Big 12 that Hoiberg has not been able to pass. For Cyclones fans, the big question is how long they will have their native son, whose name has been linked to a number of NBA jobs over the last few seasons. He was born in Ames and he starred at Iowa State, but there’s a lot of money and a lot of opportunities waiting for him in the great big world of basketball out there.
If Hoiberg is going to coach a player like Andrew Wiggins, it’s going to have to be at the professional level, not college. Before he leaves home, though, he still has one bit of unfinished business. In their 108-year history of basketball, Iowa State has never been to the Final Four. If they can avoid just being in Kentucky’s bracket, they might have a chance.