Last season, the Iowa State Cyclones relied heavily on the veteran leadership of senior All-American Georges Niang and fellow seniors Abdel Nader and Jamaal McKay. But that won’t be the case this season, as the Cyclones return only four players who saw meaningful action in 2015-16.
Iowa State returns one of the nation’s top point guards in senior Monte Morris. The Flint, Mich., native averaged 13.8 points and 6.9 assists per game last season. With Niang, Nader and McKay gone, Morris’ statistics should see an increase this season. While his numbers should see a climb, his minutes may see a decrease this season as well to keep him healthy — he dealt with a shoulder issue late in the year — throughout the course of the season.
“If we can keep him around that 30-, 32-minute range, it’s great,” Prohm said.
Alongside Morris, Iowa State gets senior guard and leader Naz Mitrou-Long back from injury, plus guard Matt Thomas and combo Deonte Burton. After these four, the Cyclones’ roster is made up of all newcomers and relatively unproven assets who will have to make impacts this year.
This past offseason, Iowa State landed two graduate transfers in former Northern Illinois forward Darrell Bowie and former Louisiana Tech forward Merrill Holden — who averaged 9.8 and 8.1 points per game respectively in 2015-16. These two post players are expected to see significant playing time for Iowa State, since the frontcourt is one of the Cyclones’ biggest weaknesses.
“[Holden’s] energy’s been really good. He can do the things we need him to do. We just need him to do it on a daily basis,” said ISU coach Steve Prohm. “I love [Bowie’s] energy … he’s adjusted well.”
While both expect to be the mainstays down in the post, incoming freshman Solomon Young figures to be in the frontcourt battle as well.
Young is a big body freshman, as he stands 6-foot-8, 240-pounds. As a senior at Sacramento High last season, Young led his team to a 30-2 record while averaging 17.4 points, 7.6 boards and 2.8 blocks per game. And the 18-year-old has already impressed his teammates and coaches.
“He can really shoot it, too,” Burton said on Young. “He’s a really good player. He’s going to be really good once he’s a senior.”
The frontcourt isn’t the only unit that will receive boosts from newcomers. Iowa State’s backcourt — which is already one of the best in the country — will be adding more talented players to it this season.
The Cyclones bring in the No.7 JUCO prospect in point guard Donovan Jackson, and Arkansas transfer Nick Weiler-Babb — brother of former Iowa State guard Chris Babb — will finally be eligible this season. Their teammates and coaches have said that they are both talented shooters, with Weiler-Babb bringing a defensive grit to this roster.
This season will be the first time in four years that the Cyclones will not have Niang in a cardinal and gold uniform. Typically, when losing someone like Niang, there is a sizeable drop-off. However, Iowa State does have the talent to make it to its sixth-straight NCAA tournament. But the question on how far will the Cyclones make it this season will fall on the shoulders of the newcomers in Ames.
Coach: Steve Prohm
Last season: 23-12 overall, 10-8 in the Big 12, 2nd
NCAA Tournament: Lost in the Sweet 16 to the Virginia Cavaliers
Key departures: F Georges Niang, F Abdel Nader and F Jamaal McKay
Starters returning: 6-foot-3 Sr. G Monte Morris, 6-foot-4 Sr. G Naz Mitrou-Long, 6-foot-5 Sr. G Matt Thomas
Top returnees: 6-foot-4 Sr. G/F Deonte Burton
Newcomers: 6-foot-2 Jr. G Donovan Jackson, 6-foot-5 So. G Nick Weiler-Babb, 6-foot-8 Sr. F Darrell Bowie, 6-foot-8 Sr. Merrill Holden and 6-foot-8 Fr. F Solomon Young
Perimeter: This will be in no doubt be Morris’ team. But the man who may be the X-Factor on perimeter for Iowa State is Jackson. The Cyclones’ lineup already features a couple of stellar three-point shooters: Matt Thomas and Naz Mitrou-Long. However, Jackson may be the best out of the three of them. During Iowa State’s “Hilton Madness,” the 6-foot-2 lefty guard beat Mitrou-Long and Morris in the three-point-shooting contest. If he can translate that shooting ability to live-game action, the Cyclones’ perimeter may blossom into one of the best in the country once the season starts.
Frontcourt: Iowa State fans are wondering, who will be starting in the frontcourt for the Cyclones this season? Positions 1-4 will more than likely be: Morris, Mitrou-Long, Thomas and Burton, and the athlete who will probably start at the 5 will be Holden. When Iowa State took on Nebraska in its so-called “secret scrimmage,” Holden started at the 5 for the Cyclones. Holden will get the first crack to replace McKay in the post, but still don’t count out Young in this battle.
Depth: The Cyclones’ main weakness last season was depth. At times, Iowa State only went seven deep last season. This time around, depth shouldn’t be a concern. The Cyclones will have the likes of Jackson, Weiler-Babb, Young and Bowie on the bench — all whom could be starters elsewhere. Having a deeper roster will benefit Iowa State this season because when the Cyclones get in foul trouble this year, it won’t be as a tough situation as it was in 2015-16.
Overall: If Iowa State wants to dethrone the Kansas Jayhawks this season, the Cyclones must improve their defense. Iowa State possessed one of the nation’s top offenses last season — it averaged 81.8 points per game, which ranked No. 15. However, the Cyclones’ defense was No. 254 (out of 346 teams) after allowing 75 points per game. Heading into this season, Prohm expects his team to play better defense than it did in 2015-16.