Cyclones Will Lean on Stinson

<B>AMES, IA --</B> Iowa State doesn't have Jake Sullivan, but it does have one of the best backcourts in the Big 12 in Curtis Stinson and Will Blalock. The Cyclones have lost Jackson Vroman to the NBA, but they do have Jared Homan and Damion Staple in the paint.

Second-year head coach Wayne Morgan knows he must take the negatives with the positives, but believes his team could be on the brink of more big things in 2004-05.

"We're really excited about the team and this year," said Morgan as he previewed the upcoming season Monday during Iowa State's Media Day. "We don't have a lot of guys on scholarship. We have 11 and not 13. But they'll play hard and play together. I'm very encouraged by this year and where we are."

Hopes are high for this season's group, especially after a 20-win season and trip to New York City for the NIT semifinals. While the winning mentality and experience from last season have been instilled on a young team, ISU must overcome some key losses.

One thing is for sure. The perimeter will look a lot different without Sullivan's outside shooting prowess. Morgan was asked directly how much of a factor Sullivan's loss could be, and countered by saying that Stinson's presence will go a long ways towards easing it.

"Quite simply, the fact of the matter is we lost Jake Sullivan, maybe one of the greatest shooters in Iowa State history," Morgan said. "We don't have one guy that's going to come out and shoot the ball like Jake. He is a once or twice-in-a-career player, and I understand that. It's not often that you have a player that, every time he shoots, you think it's in. That's when you know you have a great shooter.

"The other scenario is we have a player that's so good, that if you look next to you during the game and they're sitting there, you get nervous. You need him on the floor. Curtis is that kind of player for me. I get nervous if I don't see him in the game."

Stinson returns for his sophomore year with plenty of preseason accolades. Among those are a spot on the Wooden Award's watch list, and All-Big 12's first-team. ISU's latest New York City guard averaged 16.2 points, six rebounds, and more than four assists per game in his inaugural season.

The former Winchenden Prep School standout will have a target on his back this season, as opposing defenses will focus more on him. But it's a role that he handled with ease one year ago.

"I think that most people that play us will try to stop Curtis Stinson," Morgan said. "But we had games like that last year. We played Kansas State here and their whole thing was to stop Curtis Stinson, and Jake just went off and won the game in the end.

"I think we have enough weapons where if you put too much pressure on Curtis, then someone else will help us. We had another team here that just played Jake face to face and wasn't going to let him score. Well, somebody else had 25 points. Curtis can do other things like pass the ball, block out and rebound, and help us in some other areas."

When Morgan speaks on his other weapons, he's likely referring to backcourt mate Blalock and four-year starting center Homan, whom will have to increase their offensive output this winter.

Blalock experienced a rollercoaster ride during his freshman, hitting the rookie wall midway through before recovering for a nice postseason run. When all was said and done, he started 22 of 33 games and averaged 7.5 points. Homan, meanwhile, has never been the go-to guy inside for the Cyclones. That changes this season, as his two-year partner in the paint – Vroman – is gone.

"He should be more poised, and I think he'll do a better job leading," Morgan said of Blalock. "He'll be more aggressive. He will help us win a lot of games. His talent will speak for itself and emerge."

"Jared is a four-year starter here, and we don't have anybody else that's a four-year starter. He's earned the right to be a captain. He gives leadership. He is very tough and can show our new frontcourt players the type of toughness it's going to take to have success in the Big 12."

However, outside of Stinson, Blalock, and Homan, the Cyclones have a lot of inexperience. It will be up to Morgan and his coaching staff to fill the final two spots in the lineup. Staple, now a senior, will likely step into a starting job in the paint opposite of Homan. However, any one of four players are making a bid to start at the three.

"Our starting backcourt will definitely be Will and Curtis, and I think that our perimeter is very solid," Morgan said. "The (three) position is between Rahshon Clark, Anthony Davis, John Neal, and Tasheed Carr. I think they will all get playing time, and be very valuable. We just started practicing, so there is no particular pecking order. Damion Staple is going to be out there with him and will help. The rest will all be decided between now and the last part of November. I do know that all of those guys are good players and can help us. I think we have some good depth."

Unlike in past seasons, when the Cyclones were picked to finish near the bottom of the conference standings, this team is receiving high praise on a national level. In fact, they were picked as high as fifth by Athlon's and Sporting News.

Could this be the year ISU returns to the NCAA Tournament?

"I never predict and won't pick numbers of wins," Morgan said. "I will say what I've always said – our goal is to assess the potential of your team, strive and work every day to reach that potential, and to be the best team you can possibly be. Each day we come on the court, we have to get better. Our practices are pretty tough, and you can't come through practice trying to get through it or survive it. You have to look at every day as a chance to improve.

"I will say that our style of play and the players we have to fit into it is something the fans can look forward to. When you come out to see us play, it will be really enjoyable and entertaining. I think that if we can play to our potential and stay healthy, when all is said and done, we'll be happy with the amount of wins we have."

Morgan's squad opens the exhibition slate on Nov. 9 against Bemidji State, and will start the regular season against Drake on Nov. 23.

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