This stretch of games prior to Big 12 action will not be a perfectly smooth ride. It can't be. And in Sunday's 79-76 victory over UNI, you could see that the Cyclones are feeling their way around a bit. The veterans are working to impress Coach Morgan, while the newcomers are trying to fit in…and show they belong. Iowa State fans will need to show some patience while the team continues to improve.
Having said that, I think this team has the potential to make the NCAA Tournament. There are definitely some areas to work on—and ISU will still have weaknesses in February and March—but I think this team has a chance to make a run at "March Madness."
Honesty compels me to report that it's difficult to really know what ISU has until it plays a top-notch opponent, but the Cyclones have games with Xavier and Virginia in December, so we'll know a lot more very soon.
Here are some of the reasons that Iowa State fans should be fired up about this basketball team…
Jake Sullivan can get back to being a full-time shooting guard. Too many times in the last couple of seasons, Sullivan was forced into playing the point, which is not only not his natural position, but it takes away from his strength of coming off screens to shoot the basketball. Although the senior forced the action a little against UNI on Sunday, I think he's going to have a very good season…and he should have more open looks than he's had since his freshman year. Right now, he's averaging 12.5 points, 4.0 assists and 2.0 rebounds. Plus, he's nailed 4 of 9 (44%) from downtown.
Will Blalock has been impressive so far. Although the hype was probably overdone—as it usually is—this young man looks very comfortable and in control running the Cyclones' halfcourt offense AND pushing the ball on the break. He handles the ball with his left hand better than any ISU point guard since Jamaal Tinsley and in some ways, he reminds me of the ol' #11. I think he's going to keep getting better and better…and probably more aggressive offensively…as time goes along. In two games, the freshman is averaging 8.0 points, 5.0 assists, only 1.5 turnovers and 33.0 minutes of playing time. He's also 4 of 5 (80%) from three-point land and 4 of 4 at the free-throw line.
Curtis Stinson is a great addition. I don't know that he's going to be tremendously flashy, but Stinson is one of those guys who always seems to be around the ball…and has a nose for the basket. Some guys have all the talent in the world, but they lack these "intangibles" that Stinson definitely has. He's got good quickness and strength. He will develop into a very good defensive player. And he has a certain swagger—or confidence—that should be contagious for this team. I am guessing this is a guy who will NOT be intimidated in other Big 12 arenas. It's obviously VERY early, but Stinson's numbers are impressive. He's averaging 16.0 points, 6.5 rebounds, 3.5 assists, 2.0 steals, 31.5 minutes and only 2.0 turnovers. Plus, Stinson is shooting 50% (13 of 26) from the floor and 83% (5 of 6) from the line.
Jared Homan appears to be a much-improved player. The 6-9 post from Remsen looks to be much more aggressive at the offensive end of the floor. He's taken 18 field goal attempts in only 47 minutes so far. It's clear that the junior has more confidence in his game than he's ever had at Iowa State. I don't expect Homan to become an 18-point per game scorer this season, but his ability to attack the basket will only help the entire team's halfcourt offense. It will be important, however, for Homan to stay out of foul trouble, which plagued him against UNI. When he fouled out with 3:45 remaining, the Cyclones led by 10 points, 72-62. Without him on the floor, the Panthers made a run. Homan is averaging 13.0 points, 5.0 rebounds and 3.5 blocked shots. He's shooting 61% (11 of 18) from the field and 80% (4 of 5) from the line.
Jackson Vroman gave the Cyclones a HUGE lift on Sunday. In 28 minutes off the bench, the senior totaled 18 points, 9 rebounds, 4 assists, 3 steals and 2 blocked shots. Now, THAT'S production! Vroman showed some very nice moves in the low post, making use of a soft left-handed hook a few times. With a new haircut and, hopefully, a new outlook off the court, Vroman was the motor that made the Cyclones move against the Panthers. Obviously, his free-throw shooting has to be a concern for Coach Morgan (2 of 6 against UNI), but Vroman's energy should provide a consistent spark for ISU.
Marcus Jefferson looks like the player we saw at the end of last season. We were all hoping coming into this season that Jefferson would play with the energy and aggressiveness that he showed in the final 10 games of his junior year. So far, the senior has done a good job at both ends of the floor. Jefferson is averaging 12.0 points, 2.5 rebounds, and 2.5 steals. He's also shooting 56% (10 of 18) from the floor.
Iowa State looks to have some great balance offensively this season, which should make the Cyclones a more difficult team to prepare for. Right now, Coach Morgan has five players averaging between 12 and 18 points…and Blalock comes in at 8 per game. Then, consider that Barnes averaged 11 points and 5 assists last season and you start to realize there's some pretty good potential in Ames.
One area of concern is the Cyclones' depth in the frontcourt. Damion Staple has shown flashes of his potential in the early going and Reggie George should develop as the season progresses. Staple is averaging 6.5 points and 3.0 rebounds, while shooting 60% (6 of 10) from the floor. One red flag for George is that, in 24 minutes of playing time, he only has one rebound.
Like I said, it's awfully early to start projecting too much about where this season is headed, but I think that Coach Morgan has to be pretty pleased so far. Although there will need to be steady improvement along the way and ISU is relying heavily on a couple of freshmen, this team could find itself making a run at the NCAA Tournament before it's all over.
(Marty Gallagher founded the popular web site IowaSportsOpinions.com. You can e-mail him at Marty@IowaSportsOpinions.com.)