NEW YORK — As Iowa State forward Melvin Ejim sat in Madison Square Garden, his college career over after a Sweet Sixteen loss to Connecticut on Friday, there was one topic that perked up his mood.
The 2014-15 Cyclones.
“This team is going to go in the right direction with (forwards) Georges (Niang) and Dustin (Hogue) as leaders next year,” Ejim said. “It’s going to be fun to sit back and see how well these guys do.”
With the bitter taste of defeat still fresh, the question of what a healthy Niang would have meant to ISU in the NCAA tournament lingering over the locker room, there was a sense of hope, promise and confidence.
With three straight NCAA tournament appearances, ISU is on solid footing, and next year’s team will be in position to make the second weekend of the big dance again.
“It’s only going to get better,” Ejim said.
The optimism starts with the Cyclone in the walking boot. Niang’s broken foot against North Carolina Central changed the trajectory of this season. It doesn’t change Niang’s long-term prospects.
He was arguably the most important player on a squad with two All-Americans this season. He’ll be the centerpiece for the Cyclones. He can take over games, like in the second half of the Big 12 tournament against Kansas. His versatility allows the Cyclones to run large chunks of their halfcourt offense through him (something ISU could have used against Connecticut).
He’ll be an alpha dog with something to prove after the way his season ended.
“He is going to be hungry,” Hoiberg said. “I can tell you that. He is going to be back on his feet here in six weeks and I know he always plays with a chip on his shoulder. That chip is going to be pretty big this off-season getting himself back.”
Hogue showed there is another level to his game against the Huskies. He dropped a program postseason record 34 points. Hogue was like Pete Best, the forgotten Beatles member, for the Cyclones starting five. He won’t score 30 every night, but someone carved out of the same basketball mold as Ejim could serve the same role as Ejim did this year.
Then there are the transfers. There are always transfers coming in at ISU with coach Fred Hoiberg. The long limbed 6-foot-9 former Marquette forward Jameel McKay will add the one thing ISU lacked this season, a true rim protector. Former Northern Illinois 6-foot-6 forward Abdel Nader could have the same impact on the offensive end that McKay could on defense.
“Those guys are great guys,” guard Naz Long said. “Abdel is a scorer, so he is definitely going to pick things up on the offensive end as well as defense. He is long and athletic and Jameel is a real center, 6-9, crazy wingspan. He is definitely going to be able to alter shots.”
Point guard Monte Morris will be asked to run the show full-time. There may be no Cyclone with a brighter future than Morris, who doesn’t shy away from big moments and posted a 4.8 assist-to-turnover ratio as a freshman. Shooting guards Matt Thomas and Naz Long will need to do more. Incoming freshman Clayton Custer is an intriguing backcourt option.
And since it’s ISU, there is the very likely possibility the team lands an immediately eligible fifth-year transfer that could alter the rotation.
There is scoring, length and a little bit of depth. Yes, there is a lot to like about ISU for next season. The season is a ways away, but the prospects are promising.
©2014 the Ames Tribune, Iowa
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