Higher Ames

Even without the departed Fred Hoiberg, Iowa State is poised to join college basketball's elite

SANTA MONICA, Calif. — Georges Niang had every right to feel angry, to feel betrayed, when his head coach made the decision to depart Iowa State — the coach’s alma mater, his hometown school in a city where he’s known as the “Mayor” — to replace Tom Thibodeau as head coach of the Chicago Bulls.

Fred Hoiberg is the man who brought Niang from a private high school in New England to a public university in central Iowa. He’s the coach who helped Niang shed some 25 pounds of baby fat, changing his body from that of a pudgy kid to a chiseled, soon-to-be-professional athlete. He’s the coach who spurred on Niang’s development from overlooked top 100 recruit to matchup nightmare, an unguardable All-American on a national title contender.

Niang is entering his senior season. Iowa State is a preseason top-five team. Hoiberg is in Chicago.

And in Ames, there isn’t even a hint of bitterness.

“The fact that he gets to live out his dream and have his dream job with the Chicago Bulls, I couldn’t be more happy for him,” Niang told me at the Nike Basketball Academy last week, a statement that reads like smart PR, but, from Niang, couldn’t possibly sound more genuine. “How Coach Hoiberg treated us as men, and the respect that he showed all of us, you really couldn’t hold a grudge.”

Hoiberg’s reputation during his five seasons at the collegiate level was built on his ability to connect with his players. He turned enigmatic talents like Royce White and DeAndre Kane to into All-Americans. He convinced shot-happy gunners like Bryce Dejean-Jones and Korie Lucious to buy into a role that not only made them more effective but also made their team better. He kept malcontents happy, surrounded them with leaders like Niang and Melvin Ejim and, as a result, turned Iowa State into a title contender.

That didn’t change during his pursuit of another job, as Hoiberg kept the team as informed as possible throughout. He let them know the status of Chicago’s search, when he was expected to come to terms on a deal, when he was flying out to sign the contract. More importantly, he made sure his guys knew just how much this job meant to him.

And when someone you care for that much has a chance to chase a dream, you can’t help but be happy for them.

“He was real honest about it,” Niang said, “and as a player, you can really appreciate that. He’s like a dad to us, still checks in on us. And we love him and wish him nothing but the best.”

“If we wanted to leave for the NBA, he would for sure stand behind us in anything that we wanted to do. That was our leader, but the fact that he had to move on and do something that was better for him, we had to respect that and, really, be happy for him that he had the opportunity to do something great.”

For the Cyclones, the focus has already turned toward their future under new head coach Steve Prohm. Prohm spent the last nine years at Murray State, the last four as head coach. His record? 104-29, having reached the round of 32 in the 2012 NCAA Tournament and the second round of the NIT in 2015 in addition to winning the 2014 CollegeInsider.com Tournament title. He helped develop Isaiah Canaan into a second-round pick who is still in the NBA. He identified, recruited and coached up Cameron Payne, turning him into the No. 14 pick in the NBA Draft in just two years.

Prohm has proven capable of winning with the pieces he has on a roster. In 2012, when Murray State started the season 23-0 and won a game in the NCAA Tournament, Prohm’s Racers ranked 15th nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency, according to KenPom.com, thriving on their ability to force turnovers and defend the three. This past season was quite the opposite, as Prohm built an high-octane offense around Payne, finishing the year 13th in adjusted offensive efficiency as Murray State won 25 straight games at one point, coming within one heartbreaking Taylor Barnette jumper of an NCAA Tournament bid.

That’s relevant, because Prohm is walking into a team that is already built for a run at snapping Kansas’ 11-year streak as Big 12 regular-season champions, as well as a trip to the Final Four. The Cyclones could very well end up starting four seniors and junior Monte’ Morris, who has spent the majority of his two years in Ames as the starting point guard, while bringing two juniors and a redshirt sophomore off the bench. Two of those eight rotation players — Morris and Niang — could end up being named Preseason All-Americans.

In other words, this is an experienced group and not a team that needs to be over-coached or micromanaged. They could probably coach themselves to 25 wins in 2015-16.

Prohm, according to Niang, gets that.

“He told us, ‘I’m not trying to come in and reinvent the wheel,'” Niang said. “He wants to let us do some of the things that we did last year.”

There will be some changes, however, particularly on the defensive end of the floor, which is something that Niang says Prohm has been “preaching every day.” The Cyclones finished 71st in adjusted defensive efficiency in 2014-15 and never had a top 50 defense under Fred Hoiberg, and it’s something that Niang is keenly aware of. His contribution? Becoming “a relentless rebounder”, “going after all loose balls” and “consistently making winning plays”. In other words, he’s trying to make a name for himself as more than just a matchup problem, as more than just a scorer.

It seems like it’s working. One scout in Santa Monica last week referred to Niang as “the best screener in camp”.

“We’ve gotten along real well,” Niang said of his team’s new coach. “He’s been in for two or three weeks now so we’ve gotten some workouts in. I really like him. He’s a great guy, and when it comes to basketball I feel like I can learn a lot from him in just one year.”

He’s not the only player on the roster that believes in Prohm. Niang says he’s excited about future, but that excitement wasn’t immediate. Niang found out his school had hired a replacement on twitter, and his initial reaction to hearing that it was Prohm was … who?

“It’s funny, I really didn’t know who he was until I looked him up and did some research on him,” Niang said. “We’ve had countless conversations, sitting down and talking, and I’ve really found a niche with him and a connection.”

“I can pick his brain and develop as a player on the court and as a person off the court.”