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After Suffering Setback, Iowa State Improves

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In all sports at all levels, a significant weight is placed on who is ranked the “#1” up and coming player, who is considered the best among the next wave of hopeful athletes. Whether it is college or professional football, basketball, baseball, hockey, soccer, or any other widely watched and followed sport, people’s attention quickly moves from the recently completed season to the next, with the first question being “who will be wearing my team’s colors next season?” The fanaticism with which this question is approached and the focus centered on the rankings may be highest for basketball. A new player joining a basketball team is, at any point while on the floor, 20% of their team. Therefore, relative to football, baseball, or soccer, a game-changing player at any position is truly just that: a game changer. This is why in college basketball, every single recruiting season involves the number 1 overall recruit being vigorously pursued by multiple, big-name programs. When any of these programs’ coaches feel like they are close to landing the big fish, there is little doubt as to how much time and energy they’ll be willing to devote in order to reel him in and obtain his commitment.

            The 2009-2010 college basketball season was no different than any other year. At the time, Harrison Barnes, the 6’8 small forward out of Ames, Iowa, was the #1 ranked player that had coaches all over the country licking their chops. As schools on the list slowly saw their efforts to land the prized player become futile, Barnes’ choice came down to some blue-blooded contenders that had a great deal of experience recruiting #1 ranked players. These schools included Duke, Kansas, North Carolina, UCLA, and Oklahoma (a program that, although at first glance may seem not to belong with the others, had made 25 straight postseason appearances and had garnered national attention with Blake Griffin being selected first overall in the NBA draft that year). The most surprising school on Barnes’ list, the one that stood out like a donkey in a horse race, was Iowa State.

            Yes, the Iowa State Cyclones were certainly a surprise to see on the #1 nationally ranked recruit’s list. Sure, he grew up a mile from their campus. Of course it would be nice if his parents could watch him play simply by making a short trip up the road. But to say that Iowa State belonged in the elite group of candidates would be an egregious mistake. While the other programs each had an abundance of rich basketball history on their side, they had also been recently adding to their resumes in significant ways. Whether it had been national championships or final fours, conference championships or highly selected NBA draft picks, the other five schools had a great deal to boast about when it came to the past five to ten years.

            Iowa State, put bluntly, did not. They had been wallowing in mediocrity, hovering around .500 for five years, and had not made a postseason appearance since 2006, when they made the semi-finals of the NIT. For Harrison Barnes to pick his hometown university would not only have been uplifting for the program, but also would have come as a surprise to the basketball nation. As we know now, Harrison ended up not surprising everyone and instead chose to play at North Carolina, where he won the ACC Rookie of the Year Award and would go on to be a Second-team All-American his sophomore season.

            Despite losing out to North Carolina in the race for Barnes, there was one major change to the men’s basketball team in April of 2010. This change, however, was not a player; it was a coach. As previous coach Greg McDermott resigned to join Creighton, former Cyclone player and massively popular Fred Hoiberg was given the reigns of the Iowa State basketball team.  Since his takeover, Hoiberg has resurrected the program and brought them back on to the national scene. After going .500 in his first season (the first Cyclones season not under .500 in five years), he has led them to back-to-back 23 win seasons and ensuing back-to-back NCAA at large-selections.

            Undoubtedly one reason for Hoiberg’s success is that the quality of players he is now recruiting and getting commitments from has risen significantly in the short time he’s been in Ames. While at Iowa State, Hoiberg’s two completed recruiting classes have included 3 ESPN100 players. What’s most impressive about Iowa State’s recruits is that they, unlike Barnes, are turning down some of the more blue-blooded, storied basketball programs in order to play at Iowa State. In the completed recruiting classes of 2012 and 2013, as well as the still growing class of 2014, players chose Iowa State even after receiving offers from schools like Michigan, Boston College, Temple, Creighton, Dayton, Miami, Rice, Marquette, Minnesota, Northern Iowa, Wisconsin, Virginia, Houston, Oklahoma St., San Francisco, and Oklahoma.

            The reason for this is that, as the saying goes, success breeds success. When players look at Iowa State now, they see a program that is primarily competitive, competitive enough to feel like they let an opportunity slip away in last year’s NCAA tournament when they, a 10 seed, lost to 2 seed Ohio State on Aaron Craft’s 3 pointer that went in with half a second remaining on the clock. They also see a program that is successful: back-to-back NCAA tournament appearances and 20+ win seasons.

            Finally, they see a program gaining popularity because of its up-tempo style of play. In 2011-2012, the Cyclones shot the 13th most 3 pointers in the country (shooting 38% from beyond the arc) and reached the third round of the NCAA tournament. However, they were outside the top 50 in ppg nationally. Despite this, their run and gun style of play earned them the 24th best home attendance number in the country.  The following season, the Cyclones shot the most three pointers (making 37% of them) and scored the 4th most ppg in the country, advanced to the third round of the NCAA tournament, and attendance rose again. According to kenpom.com, the Cyclones' Adjusted Offensive Efficiency rose from 23rd in the nation in the 2011-12 season to sixth in the country in the 2012-13 season. As quality recruits have shown by committing to Iowa State and turning down schools like Michigan, Miami, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Temple, and Marquette, the Cyclones are no longer the donkeys in the horse race: they are very much a contender.