ISU basketball sets sights on the future


Forwards Jameel McKay and Georges Niang block a UAB shot during the first half of the game against the UAB Blazers at the KFC Yum! Center on March 19 in Louisville , Ky. The 14th-seeded Blazers stunned 3-seed Iowa State 60-59.  

Max Dible

It has been only 11 days since Iowa State waved goodbye to basketball for another year.

The promise of a deep March run — made and reinforced by 14 wins against eventual tournament teams, nine victories vs. ranked opponents and the second of back-to-back Big 12 tournament titles — was broken by a one-point loss to University of Alabama Birmingham in Iowa State’s opening contest. In the aftermath, it was not only the fans who felt deceived by a season that doled out more than a few conflicting emotions.

Perhaps Dustin Hogue captured it best.

“This season means a lot,” Hogue said. “But this is not the way I wanted to end it.”

In the team’s fourth trip to the Big Dance during the five-year tenure of ISU coach Fred Hoiberg, it was the first time the Cyclones failed to win a game. It would be easy for ISU fans and players to look back on the year, and the gut-wrenching, unfulfilling way it ended, and want simply to forget. But no fan or player can truly see where they’re going if they fail to grasp where they’ve been.

Where the Cyclones have been during the past two seasons is through a slue of growing pains, juggling short-term roster additions and formulating a definitive identity and strategy. The pattern of success is clear, the up-trend in the program is obvious, and the peak of the first wave of greatness swept in by Hoiberg and company will wash up in Ames next season.

It was a fact not lost on redshirt transfer Jameel McKay.

“We made history by winning back-to-back Big 12 [tournaments],” McKay choked through tears after the loss to UAB. “It sucks that our last game [went down] like this, but we have a great nucleus coming back next year, and we expect to come back stronger.”

McKay’s is a fairly reasonable expectation, and one that Cyclone Nation at large might consider sharing after a quick glimpse at just exactly what the Cyclones are bringing back. Yes, Iowa State will lose Dustin Hogue and Bryce Dejean-Jones, but it will return four starters, including three seniors.

Wooden Award finalist and first-team All-Big 12 selection, Georges Niang, will return for his senior season. Third-team All-Big 12 selection and defensive player of the year in the conference, McKay, will come back for his final collegiate year.

Point guard Monte Morris, second-team All-Big 12 selection and the national leader in assist-to-turnover ratio during both his freshman and sophomore campaigns, will also return for a go-round as an upperclassman. Naz Long rounds out the returning starters for next season. All he’ll be bringing with him is vocal leadership and the 77 3-pointers he drilled in 2014-15.

Added together, what it equates to is a veteran-laden team with more continuity than Hoiberg has been able to muster throughout the last half decade.

Most of those struggles arose out of necessity, as Hoiberg rebuilt the program heavily through the transfer market. The four returning starters in 2015-16 will change that paradigm, boasting nine collective years of ISU-specific experience, along with more than 48 points per game.

Bench players Abdel Nader and Matt Thomas, who were each key contributors at crucial times throughout the season, round out the six Cyclones returning from an eight-man rotation. All told, the familiar six will hold an average to two years of experience as Cyclones and 2.67 years of experience as collegiate players.

Eligible transfers should also contribute to true ISU depth next season. As sharp as Long’s shooting is, Hallice Cooke might be an even scarier threat from long-range.

As ferocious of a heart as Hogue possessed, Darien Williams has something Hogue never did, a 6-foot-8-inch frame, which will insert even more size into a growing ISU lineup. Finally Deonte Burton, who is built more like a linebacker than a shooting guard, will provide strength and toughness to an ISU perimeter defense that failed to effectively guard the 3-point line for much of the season.

Iowa State was ranked in the top 15 for most of the 2014-15 campaign, finishing the year with a 3-seed in the South region. The expectations, rankings and seedings all have opportunity to rise in the coming months as Iowa State is expected to challenge for Big 12 regular season and tournament titles, as well as procure a high tournament seed again next year.

The excitement, the passion and the success of last season can’t be denied. However, for some, looking back is perhaps still too painful. To those fans and players, the answer is clear. If looking back hurts too much, then look forward, because the future shines brightly with promise.

“It’s tough,” Morris said. “But we’ve got to move on.”