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Merrill Holden is the dirty work guy for Iowa State

Iowa State Head Coach Steve Prohm talks with his players during an NCAA basketball game between the Iowa State Cyclones and the Baylor Bears at Hilton Coliseum in Ames, Ia. Photographer: Merle Laswell/Icon Sportswire
(Merle Laswell/Icon Sportswire)

The Iowa State Cyclones will feature several flashy players in their starting lineup this season.

Point guard Monte Morris is one of the best ball distributors in the nation and was named a preseason All-American. Guards Naz Mitrou-Long and Matt Thomas probably make the best 3-point shooting tandem in the country. And Deonte Burton is a threat to generate a highlight reel dunk anytime he touches the ball.

While those four will certainly receive their fair share of praise and probably get the most credit for the Cyclones’ success, center Merrill Holden will probably be overlooked. But his contributions may either make-or-break Iowa State’s 2016-17 campaign.

Holden joins Iowa State after spending the past two seasons at Louisiana Tech. As a Bulldog, Holden averaged 8.1 points and five rebounds in 23 games, but only after missing 10 contests with a thumb injury. His addition in Ames, will provide something the Cyclones are thoroughly lacking: height.

The graduate transfer stands at 6-foot-8. The next tallest starter is 6-foot-5 (Burton). So Holden provides needed length in a vertically challenged frontcourt that plays in a conference that features lots of centers who are 6-foot-10 or taller.

While Holden provides length, he will be asked to become a defensive presence–grab rebounds and block shots–for a team that desperately needs one.

Iowa State set fire to the nets last year as it averaged 81.8 points per game–No. 14 nationally. However, the Cyclones were abysmal on defense as they allowed 75 points per game–No. 254 in the country. They also averaged 26.86 defensive rebounds per game, which was No. 67 in the nation.

During, Iowa State’s exhibition game against Sioux Falls on Nov. 6, Holden flashed the defensive presence he will be for the Cyclones this season.

Holden blocked the Cougars’ first shot attempt into the hands of Thomas which led to a Mitrou-Long layup. And a couple minutes later, Holden blocked a Cougars player’s shot out of bounds, and then a few minutes after that, tipped a Sioux Falls player shot right back to the Cougar athlete. Then he blocked his follow-up attempt to Morris’ hands. Four blocks in 15 minutes.


While the Chicago, Ill., native showed defensive charisma, he was lacking an offensive charm. Holden only tallied four points in Iowa State’s 101-57 exhibition win. He also was subpar on the boards, as he only grabbed three rebounds. But Cyclone fans shouldn’t expect Holden to put up those type of uninspiring numbers night-in and night-out.

“There’s a lot of potential there,” Burton said on Holden. “Only because we can’t really say for certain just yet. We just don’t know. But Merrill can really shoot the ball.”

If Holden can flash the shooting ability Burton says he has, the Cyclones’ offense can be even more deadly in 2016-17 than it was last season.

Over the past two years, Iowa State’s primary defensive presence and board cleaner was Jameel McKay. During his career in the cardinal and gold, McKay averaged 8.3 rebounds and two blocks per game. With McKay now gone, Holden should replace the hole McKay left behind.

The Cyclones don’t overly need Holden to be a go-to scorer. Iowa State has one of the deepest backcourts in the nation that has shown the ability to light up scoreboards–its backcourt scored 52 of its 56 first half points against Sioux Falls.

“That’s the strength of our team,” said ISU coach Steve Prohm on his team’s guards. “Those guys have earned the right to make shots. They’ve put a lot of time in the gym.”

While the guards will be the engines that drive the offense, Holden will be the motor that powers the defense. He will be the guy who does the dirty work for Iowa State on defense that will ultimately lead the Cyclones into their fast pace offense. And once he is able to help transition Iowa State from defense to offense, Holden will help create more shots for his team.

“Running the floor creates a lot of shots for me, and honestly [for] the whole team,” Holden said. “If I can run the floor, I can suck like three [defenders] in and leave the other guys open.”

Grab rebounds, block shots and draw defenders will exactly be what Iowa State will need and get out of Holden. And expect no less than that.  

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