Twice is Nice

Iowa State men's basketball team attempts to make the NCAA Tournament for the second straight season.

March 20th was a feeling that the men's basketball team doesn't want to feel again. The pit in their stomachs was none like they've ever felt before.


Iowa State had made the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2001 and earned a first round date the Minnesota, after dismissing the Golden Gophers 64-53 Iowa State moved on to the round of 32 to face daunting task in a North Carolina squad.


The national powerhouse was just too much and ran away with the game 92-65 and it left the ISU coaching staff and players wanting more.


"It was quite a learning experience for our guys," said head coach Wayne Morgan. "I learned a lot from that game and I think our guys did too. Being able to play two games and having some success against the University of Minnesota and playing Carolina, who were the ultimate champions of the whole thing it makes you eager to get back. It makes you a little more hungrier. I really enjoyed it and I'd like to do it again. I'm excited about it and our kids should be excited too."


The whole season was quite a learning experience for the Cyclones as Iowa State started the season 8-8 and 0-5 in the Big 12.


After a disheartening 63-51 loss at Kansas State on January 26th the Cyclones College RPI was No. 161 on January 28th. Iowa State was off to its worst start to a conference season since 1994.


That was the lowest of the lows for the Cyclones and inevitably the turning point of the season. Following the Kansas State game, the Cyclones than went on a run and won seven in a row, along the way knocking off then No. 13 Oklahoma, No. 20 Texas, No. 25 Texas Tech and No. 2 Kansas and changing the fortunes of their season.


"We are definitely hungry," said junior Curtis Stinson. "That was a great experience. We know we messed up and we lost to the champions and we're proud of that, that we got to play that team.


"We know we messed up when we lost five in a row and that hurt our season and we're not trying to have that same thing happen this year. So we're mainly trying to get focused and get on track right away."


Things are looking favorable for a return to the NCAAs for Iowa State as three of the teams five starters' return. Although it won't be an easy task, the Cyclones lost post players Jared Homan and Damion Staple.


Their departure leaves Iowa State with an inexperienced front court, but that should be balanced with a mother load of talent and experience in the backcourt.


"Obviously the guys who returned will have had the experience of last year's success and have really a good idea of what it takes to get there," Morgan said. "The thing that's kind of unique for us is that all our front court players are new so they have to be taught how to compete at this level.


"While our perimeter guys can build on last year's success in order to enjoy success this year we have to do a good job of getting our frontcourt players comfortable."


The backcourt


Juniors Curtis Stinson and Will Blalock have combined for 113 career starts and make for one of the best backcourt duos on the nation.


Stinson, a NABC and USBWA all-District pick and second-team all-Big 12 selection, averaged 17.2 points and 4.5 assists per game. He was also honored as a Big 12 all-Defensive pick. Stinson's assist (139) and steal (72) numbers were ranked among the top-five in the Big 12 for the second consecutive season.


Blalock averaged 12.3 points, his 4.87 assists per game ranked in fourth in the Big 12. A member of the Big 12 all-Underrated team, he also ranked fourth in the Big 12 in steals with 60. Blalock has a track record of taking care of the basketball; he ranked fifth in the league in assist/turnover ratio (1.95 a/t) and his career 1.90 a/t ratio is third-best in school history.


The two already rank 11th and 12th on the ISU career assist chart with 282 and 280 career assists respectively.


"I think our biggest strength is our guards," Morgan said. "Their experience, their ability, they're savvy. Obviously Curtis was an all-American this year and Will is a much improved and very talented player."


The sky is the limit for these two young guards, Morgan said they have the drive, the work ethic and the talent, but there are a few things they could tweak.


"Shooting," Morgan said. "And both of them could be better defensively. I think they were 1 and 2 in the conference in steals, but I think they have the ability to be better. I think both of them have a great chance to play at the next level."


Joining Stinson and Blalock in the backcourt are seniors John Neal and Anthony Davis and sophomore Tasheed Carr.


A former walk-on Neal earned a scholarship at the beginning of last year; he averaged 1.8 points and 1.1 rebounds per game off the bench. Neal is best known for his defensive skills and can shoot the three.


Davis' season was cut short when he had to have a nagging shoulder injury surgically repaired in January. He averaged 4.6 points in 12 games with one start.


"Anthony Davis has gotten better," Morgan said. "His shoulder is 100 percent and I think we're looking forward to a great year from Anthony."


Maybe the player who made the biggest strides over the summer is Carr. He added 13 pounds of muscle to his 6-foot-4 frame. Carr was a key player in last year's turnaround. He single-handedly powered Iowa State to victory at Texas pouring in 22 points and scoring all of the Cyclones points in overtime.


Carr averaged 5.8 points per game and led the Cyclones in 3-pointers, hitting 28-of-82 from downtown.


ISU assistant coach Mike Mennenga said that Carr's success late in the season fueled his progress in off-season workouts.


"He really put in the time this summer," Mennenga said. "I think the success that he had towards the end of last year really drove him. He had several great games down the stretch so I think that really clicked for him and it went to another level."


Mennenga has only been at Iowa State a short time, but he said he's felt a connection to Carr early on. Prior to coming to Iowa State Mennenga was an assistant coach at Maine and Buffalo and saw Carr play numerous times back on the East Coast.


"I always loved Tasheed," Mennenga said. "Of all the guys Tasheed was the one guy for whatever reason when I'd watch him play for some reason he just had a piece of me.


"I thought he could be really special. I didn't know why my antennas went up with him, but now that I'm here maybe we were meant to work together. There was a connection there and I can't figure out why or what."


Even though he's only a sophomore, Mennenga said Carr possesses maturity beyond his years.


"Tasheed is a beautiful kid," Mennenga said. "For a kid that age he's got it figured out. He understands the whole idea of off the court, academics and basketball and when you strike that harmony you become a warrior."


Also added into the mix will be freshmen Farnold Degand and Mike Evanovich. Degand is considered an outstanding shooter and ball-handler. Evanovich is also a stellar outside shooter and gives the Cyclones a size advantage.


The frontcourt


It won't be easy replacing Homan and Staple; Homan was a third-team all-Big 12 pick last season and led the Big 12 in blocks and was second in rebounding. Homan averaged 16.5 points, 16.5 rebounds and 4.5 blocks late in the season. Staple averaged 5.8 points and 4.7 rebounds per contest.


Morgan said he doesn't know if the newcomers can replace the two, but thinks they have a good shot of being successful at it.


"I think they give us our best chances to [replace Homan and Staple]," Morgan said. "They're going to be different than Damion and Jared but I have confidence that those guys will get the job done. I think as the year goes on they'll get better."


Rahshon Clark will be the only returning player in the ISU frontcourt. As a freshman Clark averaged 7.3 points and 4.1 rebounds per game and led the team in field goal percentage. His 51 steals were the fourth-best effort for an ISU rookie in school history.


"Rahshon looks like he's gotten a little taller," Morgan said "His natural ability is so great."


Clark is a fan favorite for his leaping ability and athleticism; his thunderous dunk against Virginia last season was voted ESPN's SportsCenter Play of the Day.


Along with Clark, Shawn Taggart will shoulder many of the expectations in the front court. Taggart, 6-foot-9, 215 pounds, was considered a top 40 recruit nationally. He averaged 20.2 points, 10.3 rebounds and 3.1 blocks per game last season at Mt. Zion (N.C) Christian Academy.


Three other newcomers will also get a chance to see some action down low, junior college transfers Jiri Hubalek and Jessan Gray along with freshman Ross Marsden.


Hubalek is an excellent in the low post and also has the ability to go outside and shoot. He averaged 12.4 points per game and 8.6 rebounds while earning first-team all-Region XI honors in one season at Marshalltown Community College.


Gray, a native of Davenport, returns to Iowa after stops at Indiana University and Tyler (Texas) Junior. He is most comfortable at the 3 and 4 positions where he can exploit defenses with his athleticism and outside shooting. Gray averaged 10.9 points last season at Tyler.


Marsden chose to remain in his hometown of Ames. He was a first-team all-state selection and averaged 13.5 points and 8.6 rebounds as a senior.


Morgan said he thinks that all of his newcomers will be very valuable to the program.


"Obviously I think Shawn Taggart he's very talented player but at the same time whether you talked about Ross Marsden or Mike [Evanovich] as time goes on they're going to help us more and more and more," Morgan said. "I think all the freshmen we have are good players and as time goes on they're going to help us win games, whether it's two this year or two next year or four years from now its 10 games."


Last season one of the biggest weaknesses for the squad was its depth. Iowa State went about seven players deep, but that won't be the case this season.


"I think hopefully it will give us an all out effort type of style," Morgan said. "Not saying we weren't playing all out, but when you're playing 39 minutes you need to pace that out a bit so you can make it through the game. I think this year guys will be able to play 8-10 minutes, raise there hand and come out a blow and then go back and I think that's a luxury."


Morgan likened the advantage to that of what NCAA Tournament champions North Carolina utilized to be successful.


"I'm not comparing us talent-wise to Carolina last year but they had eight or nine very good players," Morgan said. "They got those guys in and out of the game giving those guys in the game an opportunity to play as hard as they could."


Morgan said this is also the most athletic teams he's had in his third season at Iowa State. With the speed, athleticism and depth this team possesses expect to see a fast paced attack.


"We will still play up tempo and hopefully do a better job of it than we have in the past in particular after the opponent scores." Morgan said. "We're very good when we rebound the ball, but we got to get better when the opponent scores and getting it up the court faster."


Everything the Cyclones do is day-by-day, but Morgan said with that in mind they look at the rewards available at the end of the season.


"I look at the big picture, but it's day-by-day," he said. "What we have to do day-by-day and you get better in the big picture by doing the day-by-day [stuff]."


Eventually Morgan said it's not impractical for Iowa State to rise to national prominence every season.


"I think our program is going to the point where realistically if things keep progressing the way they are right now and it's been very good, I would anticipate that on a year-to-year basis we can look at it and say this is NCAA Tournament caliber team and we hope to be in the tournament," Morgan said.


Added Blalock: "We want to try to get to the Final Four. We talk about it every night so that's what we're going to try to do."



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