CN: Let's start with a wrap up of the 2002-03 men's basketball season, and where it fit with your expectations heading in.
Thompson: I think this team ended up where I thought would be a pretty good year coming into the season – if they could win 16, 17 or 18 games – I thought it would be good. Having three new guys that you're really depending on a lot, two JUCO kids and a freshman, to go along with (Jake) Sullivan. We really didn't have many veterans to support those guys. They had to carry the pressure while learning a new system.
Had we beaten Iowa in the last game, you go to 18 wins and maybe even get to 19 or 20. Even an 18th win and beating Iowa a second time would have really put a blossom on the flower for the season. It was a game we certainly could have had. The thing that hurt us all year was sometimes our guards would break down. That's exactly what happened in that game. Free throwing was always a problem for us. We gave up a lot of points on the free throw line.
CN: It seemed like the guards had played well at Hilton, but struggled on the road. It was really out of character that they struggled, and Jackson Vroman took a step backward.
Thompson: For these first-time kids in this game with Iowa, they already knew what it meant going down to Iowa and what to expect there. I wonder if our kids maybe tightened up in this game with the atmosphere. It was the real Hilton Magic that night, with 14,000 plus fans filled up and screaming like crazy. These guys had really not experienced that yet at home. We've had good crowds, but haven't had that packed house for a game like Iowa. It could have adversely affected us.
CN: That should be just another example of some valuable experiences this team had down the stretch. How will the month of March benefit the Cyclones next season?
Thompson: We've talked a couple times in past weeks about the experience of an NIT Tournament and going down to Dallas and playing a couple games. It's really valuable to have been in this situation. Even thought the Iowa game turned out as a loss, experiencing that big crowd at home will help this team next year.
This is a team that got better as the season goes on, which is a characteristic of a Larry Eustachy-coached team. Regardless of some adversity during the season and lulls when a team can get down, he never lets a team get down and stays with them.
You've seen some guys get better. In the last game, Jared Homan came up with 14 or 15 points. I think we've seen Homan improve greatly with his footwork.
What I like already is that just since the season's been over these guys have been playing and been together. They've been scrimmaging a little. That shows me what their interest is for next season.
I think this club was never that far away from being a pretty good team. We don't have the depth on this team. If we can find a defensive stopper, a guy that can go out and get into somebody and put the hammer to him. We played some pretty good defense, but couldn't stop those guys when we needed to in some tight games.
In the recruiting standpoint, if we can find somebody who can do that, it will really benefit us. We need another big guy on this team that can help us on the boards. We got beat on the boards more times this year than we had in the past. The young guards coming in should give us depth there.
I think it's crucial that our other guys develop in the off-season and pick up their defense. We had a lot of games, defensively, where we only gave up 70 or 71 points in games, so we played well enough defense but just had to get over the hump offensively. But overall I think some bright things are ahead for this team next year.
Thompson: As a coach, if you're realistic about it, once you lose somebody you forget about them and move on. There is no looking back and you can't replace it. But with our depth, we could have used some players. We had some things happen to us. Harper wasn't eligible for the year and didn't get him when we thought we would have. Of course, the big guy showed a lot of promise but he had some personal problems. If you could bring that scenario back in, this would have been a stronger team.
CN: You spoke about individuals playing better defense, but do you think the overall team defense will continue to improve with more experience and the newcomers?
Thompson: It surely should. The defensive experience of the kids this year will be improved. Then you add some guys to this team. I think more depth will be a factor, especially when you're playing fast-paced physical games. You're talking about strength against strength, which takes a lot of effort from a player and tires you quicker than just running up and down the floor.
CN: We saw Vroman take drastic strides towards the end of the season, where a double-double was just a formality. Can you see him taking the next step now and developing into a workhorse that can put this team on his shoulders night after night?
Thompson: He really came along. At Iowa he came back in there and just dominated on the inside and got Iowa State back in the game. I think the coaching staff did a good job of getting him under control, offensively. He was just taking it and flying in there like he does everything else and played too fast. They got him to slow down on offense, face and make his move instead of just going strong and throwing the ball at the basket.
There are some things that he's got to improve in his game. If he can step out and get a 12 to 14 foot shot this summer, there's not many big guys that can go down the floor and cover him. Then he's got an advantage inside because he can use his right or left hand. But then if he's a player you're going to, he's going to get fouled. So he needs to spend some time this summer getting the free throw down. He needs to get it up to 65 or 70 percent. He's close. A lot of times he doesn't look like a real bad free throw shooter, he just goes up there and short-arms it. If a guy's going to be a go-to guy, you've got to convert it on the free throw line.
CN: Have we seen Marcus Jefferson turn the corner to being another option for this team?
Thompson: You'd certainly hope so. He showed the best signs under adverse conditions, with his mother being ill, going back and forth and not practicing. I thought he played some of his best basketball during that time. The Colorado game here and the first game in the Big 12 Tournament, he showed some explosiveness and reactions that I haven't seen.
I thought he's been tentative. In practice I've liked a lot of what I've seen, but then you take it to the game and he's been tentative in a lot of situations. But I saw him come on at the end of the year, and he used his athleticism and explosiveness. You saw him go up and follow a shot and dunk it. He went up himself and dunked it. This is the athletic ability he has, but he has to continue getting it into the game.
CN: Adam Haluska kind of hit the proverbial freshman wall and his game regressed down the stretch. As a sophomore, can we expect to see the Haluska of the first few months for the entire season?
Thompson: That seemingly happens to freshmen for two reasons. They come out and get a lot of confidence early and you don't play a lot of tough teams early in the season, but then you go around the horn twice in the league. People get a chance to look at you, study you and take away a few of your strengths. With freshmen, they do kind of hit the wall. I look over at Iowa – Jeff Horner and Greg Brunner didn't play as well toward the end of the year. I look for those guys to work on those weaknesses this summer and become better players.
CN: Looking at a veteran like Jake Sullivan, who will be returning for his senior season at ISU, what kinds of changes can he make in his game that he hasn't already?
Thompson: He's got to keep himself in shape where he was this year. He came in and wasn't heavy like he was two years ago. He needs to be given some help, where he's not just the guy you've got to go to for offense. Getting some other players in here that can help and create some things will help. And he'll continue to work, you know that. Shooting is always going to be one of his strengths. He's got to continue working on the other things, like ball handling and passing. That would make him a better player.
CN: Coach Eustachy signed a class of three in the fall period. What are their prospects of contributing next season?
Thompson: I have heard Justin Holt is an aggressive, rebounding-type kid that's strong. He can show you a little outside shooting and can take it inside, but can really rebound. We've got to get back to rebounding. Defensively, usually kids come into this system and need to learn defense.
Curtis Stinson is a strong guard that has the ability to play some defense. Out of these incoming players, maybe Stinson is the guy that can take ahold of somebody and be a defensive stopper. I think that's going to be real important. If a guy could come in and play minutes, maybe he can take a few away from Jake where he doesn't have to be on the floor all the time. That way Jake could be fresher to take those shots.
CN: The back-to-back championship teams had strong three-guard rotations. Is this something you can see developing with the addition of Stinson and Will Blalock to go along with Barnes and Sullivan?
Thompson: That's definitely a possibility. You'd like to add a big guy, but if we don't have any success doing that, I can see a three-guard offense easily. Larry's history has shown he can be very successful with a three-guard offense.
CN: A lot has been made of this team's non-conference schedule. Would you like to see the Cyclones play some better teams in November and December?
Thompson: I think this team will be much more ready to play a tougher non-conference schedule next year than they were this year. We saw our ups and downs and valleys throughout the season. Even in the early going with the non-conference schedule that we had, we struggled. You're starting with all new players and trying to put them into a system. That was to be expected.
CN: What do you say to the fans who have started to question whether or not Coach Eustachy is the right man for the job in Ames?
Thompson:What happens is you have great teams and expectations always get high for the fans. They see you've done it once and wonder why you can't do it again. There are a lot of things that go into it. You always hear coaches talk about the Final Four and winning it. They talk about having good players, being injury-free and having some luck. We had some guys come in and blend together with Jamaal Tinsley and Marcus Fizer. Fizer hadn't done much until those last couple years. The first year he didn't come in and light this team on fire.
I think we should have a better team next year, but then I think next year's recruiting class is really going to be an important factor at Iowa State. We're going to lose a ton of players that following year. We're going to lose Vroman, Barnes, Sullivan and Jefferson.
CN: Finally, let's look 11 months into the future. Is this team ready to make a return trip to the NCAA Tournament?
Thompson: (Long pause) I would say this team has a good chance to go to the NCAA Tournament, providing what we think is out there in the way of new players and help coming in. The other thing is this is a tough, tough league, and you're only going to get a certain number of players out of a league. You've got to play darn good basketball to get into the NCAA Tournament, because the league is so tough. Look what's going on with the Final Four right now, with our Big 12 teams.