1) Iowa State has the same team as last year
In this era of college basketball, it’s pretty incredible to see the type of continuity Iowa State has this season. Fred Hoiberg is gone and Steve Prohm is in his place but just about the entire band – Georges Niang, Monte Morris, Jameel McKay, Abdel Nader, Matt Thomas – is back. The only significant player (other than Naz Long who had season-ending surgery) they lost from last season’s team that won the Big 12 Tournament before being shocked in a 3/14 upset in the first round of the NCAA Tourney is Bryce Dejean Jones, whose gotten a few cups of coffee in the NBA with the New Orleans Pelicans.
The problem is that BDJ was a pretty significant loss. He was a 6’5+ super athlete with 3-and-D potential at the next level and he injected a badly needed dose of length and athleticism on this roster, particularly on the perimeter. Hoiberg was able to get a lot of really skilled players but when you are recruiting to Ames you have to give up something and the team he assembled isn’t exactly a 4×100 relay. You really saw that in their loss to UAB in the Tourney – they got absolutely smashed on the offensive boards by a bigger and more athletic team and it’s hard to see it playing out any differently this season. Iowa State has plenty of talent and they are a very fun team to watch, but this is a team that’s going to be at the mercy of the selection committee. They had better be praying for a draw with a bunch of teams that have guys going pro in something other than sports.
What makes the situation worse is that McKay, their only real athlete upfront, has wound up in Prohm’s doghouse. McKay is coming off a suspension and he isn’t starting and that’s a serious problem. They desperately need his ability to protect the paint, compete on the boards and roll to the rim and when he’s not in the game they play a line-up of five guys smaller than 6’7, none of whom is a plus athlete. Even with McKay, it’s still not enough. He’s only 215 pounds and he seriously needs to hit the weight room if he’s going to able to bang with guys like Johnathan Motley (6’9 235), who finished with 27 points and 10 boards on 14 shots in Baylor’s win on Tuesday.
The one new guy who gets major minutes is Deonte Burton, a 6’4 250 bowling ball who transferred from Marquette. Burton plays hard and has an interesting football type body that can present match-up problems for a lot of teams, but he made several silly plays in the final few minutes of the loss to Baylor and he can have just as much trouble with match-ups on the other end – he’s an undersized big man and there’s just not much he can do when a 6’9+ guy like Motley has him pinned at the front of the rim. This play kind of summed Iowa State’s problems in the paint on defense.
2) Monte Morris has maxed out his game
Morris is one of the most impressive NCAA PG’s that I’ve seen in a long time. He has everything you want in a floor general – he can shoot 3’s, score off the dribble and run the offense. He always plays at his own pace, he never gets sped up and he rarely ever makes the wrong decision with the ball in his hands. I’ve long thought assist-to-turnover ratio is the most important stat for a PG so this kind of says it all about what type of player he is.
The question when it comes to projecting him to the next level is just how good he can be with average size (6’2 170 with a 6’5 wingspan) and average (at best) athleticism. Forget about guarding Russell Westbrook and Steph Curry because those guys are just aliens anyway. PG is the deepest position in the league and you have to be able to at least match up physically if you are going to have any chance of slowing them down. Could Morris stay in front of guys like Reggie Jackson and Kemba Walker and Brandon Knight? If not, he’s probably going to have to come off the bench.
Here’s where it gets tricky for Morris. How many NBA teams even need a traditional backup PG and how many are better off running offense through a wing player and putting more athletes or more shooters around him? I’ve always liked what the Spurs do with their 2nd unit – running everything through Manu and putting a more explosive scorer (Patty Mills) at the point. It’s not just teams with future Hall of Famers coming off the bench either, as the Celtics do something similar with Evan Turner. I think the key for Morris at the next level is going to be looking for his shot more. If you are a guard whose going to give up points on defense, you have to be aggressive in looking to get them back the other way or you aren’t going to be all that helpful.
Long story short, I love Morris game and he’s a great player to watch but I’m not sure how high I’d take a traditional PG with only average athleticism whose going to come off the bench. I talked to an NBA scout tonight who compared him to Trey Burke and Tyus Jones so make of that what you will.
3) It’s the same thing with Georges Niang
Niang is like a 6’8 230 version of Morris. He’s a wondrously gifted offensive basketball player who has seemingly been around Ames forever (he was an AAU teammate of Nerlens Noel) and who can take over a game anytime he wants at the NCAA level, but he’s also a remarkably limited athlete whose going to struggle to stay in front of anyone at the next level. The first thing you have to ask with any NBA prospect is who can he guard and I’m not sure there’s an answer to that question for Niang beyond the guys in the video room. He’s kind of like if Draymond Green had no athletic ability.
While he’s a pretty great small-ball 4 at the NCAA level, he got absolutely pummeled by the Baylor big men upfront and it’s not like he’s going to have much more success getting down in a stance and guarding 6’7+ combo forwards 25+ feet from the basket. This feels like a guy whose going to have a long career overseas before getting into coaching. One thing that is cool about the NCAA game is that the level of talent is so spread out that it allows guys like Niang to thrive. There’s just a lot more room for variety and diversity in style of play than there is at the NBA level, where the tyranny of uber-athleticism and hyper-specific game-planning leads to the monotony of waves upon waves of similar players with similar builds and similar skill-sets.
There’s not going to be any team in the NBA that plays or looks anything like Iowa State because a team as gloriously non-conformist just wouldn’t be able to work. Iowa State kind of reminds me of the best players from the pick-up game at the local gym – a bunch of guys without great athleticism but with a great feel for the game who can move the ball and play interchangeably. For as much trash as I have been talking about them in this article, they are a great NCAA team and they are one of the main reasons that the Big 12 has been so much fun to watch over the last few seasons.
4) The training wheels come off for Steve Prohm next season
Year 1 in Ames for Prohm, who came over from Murray State, has been easy enough, as Hoiberg left behind a smoothly-running machine that can pretty much coach itself. When you have two coaches on the floor in Morris and Niang and a whole host of role playing 3-shooters with a ton of experience around them, you don’t exactly have to be an X’s and O’s genius to get the most out of them. It’s a group that was ready to win from Day 1 of the Prohm era and it gave him a nice set of training wheels to get himself comfortable coaching in one of the toughest conferences in the country. With only 10 schools and a home-and-home with each one, there aren’t many nights off in the Big 12.
Year 2 is when the degree of difficulty gets ratcheted up a notch. Niang, McKay and Nader will all have used up their eligibility and Morris will probably be gone too – it’s a weak draft so this is probably as high as he will go given that he’s not going to get any bigger or faster if he returns for his senior season and his stock would likely be impacted negatively if the team takes a step back following the loss of so many important players. There’s only going to be a few holdovers from the Hoiberg era – Thomas and Long, both of whom will be seniors – and it will be all on Prohm to continue bringing high-level players into Ames, which won’t be easy.
He has a good recruiting class coming, including two four-star recruits, but it’s going to be tough for him to maintain the level of consistency the program has achieved under Hoiberg. It’s entirely possible that the Niang and Morris era represents a high water mark in the recent history of the Iowa State program. The key will probably be for Prohm to maintain the transfer pipeline into Ames (and much more importantly) be able to continue Hoiberg’s success at integrating so many different pieces into the team on annual basis and getting guys with checkered histories and track records to play for something bigger than themselves. Hoiberg is the only coach to ever get anything out of Royce White, which shows you the type of challenge that Prohm has taken on for himself in replacing him.
5) The Problems with The Narrative
“At some point it’s not about scoring. It’s about can we get stops.” – Steve Prohm
It was interesting sitting in on the Iowa State press conference and listening to the questions that the beat writers were asking Prohm and the players. Everyone was focused on the late game execution and whether the Cyclones were getting the best possible shots and what they could do differently in the final few minutes of the game. It’s not to say that that stuff wasn’t important to the outcome but it’s easy to see how people who have to write about this team on a daily basis can start to miss the forest through the trees. Tactics are great but they take a backseat to strategy and focusing on tactics at the expense of strategy ends up obscuring what’s really going on and the dynamics that are ultimately driving the success and failure of a team.
The bottom line is that it doesn’t really matter how well Iowa State plays in the final few minutes of a game – there are underlying reasons why they continually lose close games to good teams and it’s not going to change no matter how well they execute their offense at the end of games. They aren’t very big, they aren’t very athletic and they don’t play much defense. They have an offensive rating of 30th and a defensive rating of 150th and a team with that profile has very little margin for error and they are almost set up to cause heartbreak to their fans.
You can look at it this way. Iowa State is playing on an uneven playing field with the table slanted against them. They can run perfect offense, they can do everything right and they can make every difficult shot and the odds are still going to slowly move against them because they can’t keep guys in front of them and they can’t keep them off the offensive boards. They are going to get into the NCAA Tournament and they are eventually going to run into a team that can score with them and if they can do even a slightly better job of stopping them they are going to knock them out. The sad part about is that there’s not much they can do about it. They are constrained by the limitations of the personnel on their roster.
That’s why I have so much respect for beat writers – there’s only so many ways you write the same story in an interesting way without boring you and your readers half to death. But it’s also why I hardly ever read game articles because what’s the point. Focusing myopically on one game at the expense of the broader picture of the season is more likely to mislead than to inform your audience while sticking mainly to the big picture elements quickly becomes repetitious over the course of the season. There’s just not all that much you can say about any one basketball team and I don’t expect I’ll be saying all that much about Iowa State going forward.