Last year’s team was perhaps the best on paper basketball team in Iowa State history, and certainly the best since Marcus Fizer and Jamaal Tinsley put on the cardinal and gold. Fred Hoiberg bolting for the Chicago Bulls left that team to be coached by Steve Prohm, who did his best to continue to let the team be themselves and run a system that they were comfortable with.
This meant a similar style to Fred’s fast paced, green light offense and a defensive strategy that was, at the surface level, mostly about just trying to be average enough to let the offense do its thing. As impressive as the offense was and had been since 2012/13, ranking 8th, 10th, 12th, and finally 7th in 2016 in Kenpom’s adjO metric the past 4 years, the defense has been undeniably lacking for a major conference school going to the NCAA Tournament. ISU ended the past 4 years ranked 126th, 55th, 59th, and 91st in adjD those same years. This year, Steve Prohm can and will put his own stamp on this team, with a full offseason to install his offensive and defensive philosophies. Change is on the horizon, but what will that bring?
This year Steve Prohm will surely be running a more close approximation of what his actual system looks like offensively, defensively, and on the boards instead of what was last year’s approach of mostly running with what the senior led team was used to with Fred Hoiberg. The styles aren’t incredibly different on the court, although off the court it seems as though they are very different. The best bet to predict what Steve Prohm wants his team to look like, in my opinion, is to look at his final Murray State team that went 29-6 while going 16-0 in conference.
This will likely be a team that is fast paced (Murray State was 58th fastest in adj tempo in ’15), extremely efficient on offense (17th in adjO), and defensively forces long possessions (295 teams allowed quicker shots) even if opposing teams still score pretty easily when they do shoot (173rd in adjD). The defense will absolutely need to improve this year at Iowa State, because with the loss of Georges Niang it will likely regress offensively, if even slightly. On the bright side, Niang on defense is replaced by more athletic and physically gifted defenders, so by default there should be improvements.
Prohm’s team didn’t turn the ball over, shot well from all parts of the field and forced steals and blocked shots aggressively. This is mostly similar to what Fred Hoiberg did in his last year, with one big difference. Murray State rebounded at the 30th highest rate in ‘14/’15 while Hoiberg sent defenders back in transition, earning the 271st highest rate. That will be a key challenge for ISU with their small ball lineup that will likely include only one player taller than 6’5 in the starting lineup. On the flip side, that Murray State team allowed more offensive rebounds than ISU on average.
ISU’s rebounding numbers will come down to how aggressively the players can be motivated to really put in effort and work to rebound, and also to where Prohm wants to place his chips. Offensive rebounding percentage always suffers with more focus on transition defense, and getting out in offensive transition quickly will negatively affect defensive rebounding percentage.
So what will stay from last year and what will be changed? Well, the rebounding was dreadful for ISU last year on both sides of the glass. This was by far ISU’s greatest overall weakness last year and must improve for ISU to be competitive. Georges Niang is gone to play for the Indiana Pacers and due to that things will be a little more difficult scoring on offense. However, replacing Niang with Deonte Burton at the 4 spot in the Cyclone lineup will add a huge boost in athleticism that, if effort is there, could translate into much improved rebounding numbers from that position.
ISU is in a great spot returning 4 SR perimeter players to the starting lineup. Monte Morris, Naz Long, Matt Thomas, and Deonte Burton all have great experience playing basketball not only against high level competition but at high levels themselves. I’d wager that this is the most experienced group of 4 players in the country. Morris is likely to be on every national PG of the year watch list and on some straight up player of the year watch lists. He’s already a preseason All American, ISU’s first since……last year. (and 2nd since Jamaal Tinsley in 2000).
Naz Long and Matt Thomas, if healthy, are both known commodities at guard for ISU. Both are sharpshooters who can guard their positions. Matt Thomas has always been fond of getting shots up inside the arc as well to counter defenders flying out to contest, and based on the first few games last year I expect Naz Long to take it to the rim fairly often as well. These are things that might not have been polished in their games as underclassmen, but as SRs added balance to their repertoire should help make up for the offensive losses of Georges Niang and Abdel Nader.
Deonte Burton is the real wildcard for ISU. By far the most athletic player on the Iowa State team and possibly one of the most athletic players in the country, Burton has loads of potential. Along with his raw athleticism he adds a smooth, skilled ability with the ball in his hands. He can speed past defenders, take contact at the rim, and finish with touch in traffic. The key for Prohm will be harnessing his athleticism on the boards. Burton will have a tough job rebounding against taller, heavier opponents but should be able to hold his own if it becomes a primary focus for him. Burton is also a phenomenal passer physically.
His decision making and attentiveness can be inconsistent, but in a SR season where he may be playing for attention from NBA scouts, you would expect these things to be much improved. He has shown a competent three-point shot as well and can certainly knock down shots at a high enough clip to keep defenders honest. Deonte Burton living up to his potential could be the difference between ISU being a good team who goes out with a whimper, or a contender at the top of the B12 who can make a run in the postseason.
Rounding Out the Rotation
The fifth starter for ISU is looking like it’ll be Merrill Holden. The 6’8 SR will be playing the 5 spot for ISU, but obviously is much smaller than your typical center. The most important things for Holden to contribute is rebounding and defense. He’s going to be doing the cliché “dirty work” along with the other graduate transfer Darrell Bowie, who stands 6’8 as well. Holden rebounded and blocked plenty of shots despite being undersized at Louisiana Tech in ‘15/’16, and was especially good on the offensive boards.
Darrel Bowie comes in after sitting a year out at Northern Illinois with a shoulder injury. He was a major part of the team in the ‘14/’15 season, with the highest usage rate on the team. For context, when he was on the court, the possession ended with a shot or turnover by Bowie at a higher rate than Georges Niang on last year’s ISU team. He won’t be asked for that by this ISU team, but his experience should allow him to come in and immediately contribute what Iowa State needs without much issue. Expect Bowie to be a slightly better rebounder than Holden while Holden protects the rim a little more.
The advantage these two players have over the players they defend and that will defend them will be speed and quickness. It will be rare for them to matchup with someone smaller than them in the post. This is nothing new for ISU but neither has the lanky wingspan or athleticism of Jameel McKay that led to so many enthusiastic blocks and exciting dunks.
Donovan Jackson will be the best backup point guard option ISU has had since Deandre Kane was spelled by Monte Morris during the latter’s freshman season. With Monte’s importance to the offense, it is going to be interesting how much playing time Jackson will get, as he is certainly capable of contributing 15-20 minutes per game, but Prohm seems reluctant to play him and Morris at the same time. Jackson won the 3 point contest at Hilton Madness this year, and looks the part of a sharpshooter that ISU likes to have out there.
Nick Weiler-Babb, Simeon Carter, Jakolby Long, and Solomon Young will round out the bottom of the rotation. Of these players, the staff seems to be very high on Weiler-Babb and his playmaking ability. He has the size and athleticism to be a plus defender and could be a potentially explosive slasher.
Solomon Young is ISU’s biggest body down low at 6’8 and 240 pounds. If he can contribute a physical presence down low for ISU his freshman season along with Holden and Bowie, that will go a long way for ISU.
Carter and Long don’t seem to be likely to get much early playing time, either making major contributions likely means injury in front of them or an unexpected development early in their careers. Long is a very talented player and his physically big enough to defend his position already, but time at the 2 or 3 guard position will be very tough to find after Long, Thomas, and Burton take their minutes.
The Schedule Ahead
Schedule wise, this non-conference slate is boom or bust. 7 games are against teams rated by Kenpom below 180th in the country, with 3 over 330th. Of the remaining schedule games a home game against the KP 28th ranked team Cincinnati, a game at Vanderbilt at the end of January, and a road test at 55th ranked Iowa round out the three toughest non tournament games for ISU. What really stands to add to ISU’s non-conference strength of schedule is their possible opponents in the Advocare Invitational in Orlando. If they win against Indiana State in Hilton, they will likely draw Miami, who is the 24th ranked team per Kenpom. The winner of that game will go on to play the winner of the other side of the bracket, which should be either Gonzaga, Florida, or Seton Hall. Those are the 22nd, 17th, and 29th rated teams by Kenpom, respectively.
That is a great opportunity to get two extra top 25 matchups on a neutral court to pad ISU’s NCAA Tournament resume. If ISU ends up not playing against Miami, Seton Hall, or Gonzaga it will have only one game against a top 30 quality opponent, although it will be at home. In that scenario, a road game in Iowa City would likely be the toughest non-conference game.
The B12 slate should be overall a very tough one, but outside of Kansas it is difficult to project who will be the stiffest competition. ISU isn’t dodging anyone due to the B12’s fantastic round robin schedule, so there’s not a whole lot to analyze as far as SOS. If there is a doomsday scenario where ISU misses those top teams in the Advocare Invitational and multiple B12 teams who were supposed to contend for the B12 title fail in the non-conference, ISU’s resume could suffer.
Where will ISU finish? I’d suspect anywhere from 2-4 wouldn’t surprise me. Texas and West Virginia should compete for spots in that same top 4 while Kansas holds the pole position. Kenpom has the B12 rated as the #2 conference in the country behind the ACC this year, and if that holds up it will be another grind through the conference slate. This year ISU has more depth to survive the year, but there will certainly still be issues dealing with B12 size inside with Georges Niang to flip defenses inside out by moving to the perimeter. It is likely possible to try something similar with Deonte Burton, but his lack of height will make that a tough move to pull off.
Overall, Iowa State is in much better shape this year than we thought a year ago. Monte spurned the NBA to come back and lead the team from the PG position, Naz Long ended up with medical redshirt, and Matt Thomas made an enormous jump last year to be a really effective shooter along with the other skills he brings to the table. Instead of being a young team with role players needing to step into larger roles, Iowa State is fielding a veteran team with 6 SRs with guys mostly in roles that they have taken on before.
I expect ISU to hit the ground running this year, with only a couple non-conference losses. One is likely in Orlando and I believe it’s likely that another gets dropped along the way. The game against Iowa in Iowa City may prove to be tricky as it is the only true road game ISU will play before conference play begins, and winning on the road even vs average teams is much more difficult than it looks. Kenpom actually has Iowa as a 1 point favorite in that game. If ISU enters that game undefeated they’ve done very well for themselves.
In conference, ISU’s goal must be to get 4 or 5 road wins and defend their homecourt. If ISU can get 8 wins in Hilton and win 4 out of 9 road games to get to 12-6, a second place finish in the B12 seems likely considering the parody in the league this year. Of course, that would come with an NCAA Tourney birth.
My final prediction? ISU finishes 22-8 (12-6) with a 5-6 seed in the NCAA Tourney as a reward. After that, a veteran laden team who has been there before multiple times has a chance to make one last run with this group of SRs. This may not be the best ISU team that has been fielded during the 5 year NCAA Tournament streak or the 57 weeks in the AP Top 25 Rankings, but with a little luck it could make the deepest run. That’s what’s fun about college basketball, you never know when you’re going to see something out of the ordinary, or even a little magical.