Head to Head: What did we learn from a disaster 2020-21 season for Iowa State?

Iowa State men’s basketball players huddle together during the team’s 81-67 loss to Texas on March 2. 

It was a season to forget for Iowa State men’s basketball.

The Cyclones finished their season 2-22 overall, 0-18 in conference action and became the fourth team in Big 12 history to go winless in league play during their 2020-21 stint.

Sports Editor Zane Douglas and Assistant Sports Editor Matt Belinson went “Head to Head” to debate what fans should take away — if anything — from a disaster season for the Cyclones.


During all the losing that defined arguably the worst season in program history, Iowa State faced adversity on and off the court — not being to able to overcome some of its biggest weaknesses and find a turning point.

We had a feeling there wouldn’t be a whole lot of winning coming into this year after losing Tyrese Haliburton to the NBA and seeing the product on the floor in the final games the Cyclones played without him last season.

His absence was felt in a major way for Iowa State this year.

1. Iowa State needs — and missed — a playmaker

It’s been no secret Iowa State has thrived when it’s had talented guards with playmaking ability capable of making their teammates better.

We didn’t see much of that this past season.

The Cyclones relied on Rasir Bolton to fill into the role of point guard, but it was clear at the end of the 2019-20 season and all throughout this one that the junior guard isn’t naturally a leading facilitator. He’s better suited to play off ball and let defenses collapse, allowing him to cut quicker to the basket and go to the foul line where he’s had his best games as a Cyclone.

But like I said, his main game is not making others around him better. That’s no shot at Bolton, but it certainly shows how undermanned the team was at the guard spot to make Bolton into something I don’t think he is.

He led Iowa State with 3.9 assists per game and a 1.21 assist-to-turnover ratio, making it the first time since the 2007-08 season where the Cyclones had their team leader average under four assists.

The numbers backed up what my eyes saw.

Iowa State averaged 14.9 turnovers per game this past season, the most of any season under Steve Prohm. As a team, the 2020-21 Cyclones finished with a 0.8 assist-to-turnover ratio, which is the first time Prohm has had a team finish under at least 1.0 for a season and is the first sub-1.0 finish since the 2006-07 season.

Jaden Walker showed a couple flashes here and there coming off the bench for most of the season but he never fully took over the role.

His best game of the season in terms of point guard potential was on Feb. 2 against West Virginia, when he put up six points and six assists. But like most small positives with the Cyclones it came with a caveat. Walker ended the night with six turnovers, most of which were easy steals by the Mountaineers.

The other “point guard” options of Tyler Harris and Javan Johnson were not real successes, with both of them finishing with a 0.62 and 1.16 assist-to-turnover ratio respectively.

For Iowa State to avoid anything like the 2020-21 season, it needs to find a true playmaker again.

2. Where was the 3-point shooting?

To keep with the theme of a down year on offense for the Cyclones, the 3-point shooting did not go as the team had planned for.

As I mentioned earlier with point guards, the Cyclones’ success in the past relied on a system of pace and space offense with skilled guards who can create on the floor.

The 2020-21 Cyclones showed another low year in 3-point production.

Jalen Coleman-Lands lead the team with his 39.5 percentage from 3-point range. The transfer from DePaul was expected by Prohm and his staff to hover around 41 percent from deep this season, and while he may not have met that mark he was easily Iowa State’s most efficient shooter from three.

It was pretty suspect for the rest of the team from beyond the arc.

Harris was second on the team shooting 31.7 from deep and then Bolton with his 31.4 percentage.

In Prohm’s five seasons in Ames, his team’s lowest season in 3-point production came in the 2017-18 season when Iowa State made 234 threes at a 35.8 percent clip.

The last two seasons have set a new low.

The Cyclones made 175 3-pointers at a 32.1 percent clip in the 2020-21 season, coupled with a 2019-20 season that the team finished with 227 made threes at 31.6 percent.

Before the last two seasons, Iowa State as a team had never finished below 35.8 from deep since 2010, except for the last two.


Matt hit it on the head above. The team was never supposed to be good coming into this season, but it didn’t just lose Haliburton, a now-star rookie in the NBA. The team also lost a ton of pieces that, while not all that glamorous on their own, were a solid group for depth or to build for the future.

Three from Prohm’s 2019 recruiting class transferred before even hitting their sophomore year and the team was already filled more with transfers than it was with recruited talent.

It culminated in one of the worst college basketball seasons in the country and has left Iowa State with holes everywhere in its roster.

1. Recruits don’t see much action

Iowa State was lucky to have a recruiting class with four players in it. It was even luckier to have all four of those players be solid additions with reasonably high upsides.

Despite this, they all struggled at times to find playing time.

The cream of the crop and one of the most important recruits in Iowa State history was Iowa native Xavier Foster — a high four-star recruit and top-100 prospect choosing between the Cyclones and Hawkeyes.

Foster barely even played, picking up sparse minutes for a time until he was sidelined for the rest of the year with a foot injury that required surgery.

Darlinstone Dubar and Dudley Blackwell also crept into the lineup a few times, with Dubar taking on a larger and more sustaining role, but neither of them found their footing and were relegated back to low or no minutes.

The most successful freshman campaign came from the lowest of the four recruits and the only guard in the class for Iowa State: Jaden Walker.

Walker earned more and more minutes as the season dragged on until he hit a point where he was starting and playing most of the game.

With regular time like that, he was the easiest Cyclone to get an extended look at and he showed flashes of defensive potential, driving potential and playmaking.

He made a lot of young mistakes and when his shooting went cold toward the end of the season, he lost some of his minutes, but Walker will be a big part of the team going forward.

Aside from just freshmen, Iowa State looks more and more like a team put together by transfers.

Regular rotation pieces like Rasir Bolton, Jalen Coleman-Lands, Tyler Harris and Javan Johnson are all transfers. They all started and played games during the season and were all important pieces.

As it stands, there is only one player left from the 2018 and 2019 recruiting class for Steve Prohm and they’re both just fringe starters.

The recruiting issue is one of the key reasons why a season like this was possible for a normally successful Iowa State program.

2. Future prospects aren’t too bad

Recruiting has left the Cyclones in a bad place, but the future doesn’t look too bad, despite a team still filled with transfers.

For one, the Cyclones will be better next year, especially if it can stay healthy. Foster returning, plus the addition of Tyrese Hunter, star point guard recruit, will help.

The ability to develop guards into top-tier pieces has been an Iowa State specialty that seems to be happening with the three-star project pickup in Walker. Hunter is a higher recruit who is more polished and a point guard Iowa State needs.

Ball distributing was a huge issue for the Cyclones — something that’s already been talked about in this article — and Hunter should help with that.

As for Foster’s return, he and George Conditt will need to do a solid job of holding down a post position with no depth to it.

That requires healthy and good seasons from both, which can be a lot to ask when it’s only two players that have to do that on their own.

Either way, it’s looking up ever so slightly for the Cyclones. It’s looking so up, that a season like the 2020-21 one might already be a thing of the past.