Cyclones reload for Big 12 title run in ’14-15

AMES, Iowa (AP) Iowa State has rarely faced the challenge of replacing two All-Americans, mostly because it wasn’t able to land such players.

These days, it’s simply a chance for another batch of talented transfers to thrive under coach Fred Hoiberg.

The Cyclones reached the Sweet Sixteen for the first time in 14 years last season behind Melvin Ejim, the Big 12’s Player of the Year, and honorable-mention All-American DeAndre Kane.

They’ve both moved on. But Iowa State is confident it can replace Ejim and Kane’s production in 2014-15 – and perhaps surpass it.

Former UNLV standout Bryce Dejean-Jones averaged 13.6 points last year and should be among the Big 12’s guards. Marquette transfer Jameel McKay is expected to be Hoiberg’s first true shot blocker. Abdel Nader, a 6-foot-7 wing player from Northern Illinois, has the size and the versatility Hoiberg craves along the perimeter.

That trio will join a core group of returnees who’ve proven they know how to win.

Junior forward Georges Niang is a serious conference player of the year candidate. Point guard Monte Morris set the NCAA record with an assist-to-turnover ratio of 4.79-to-1 as a freshman last season, and Hoiberg believes senior forward Dustin Hogue’s 34-point outburst in the season finale against Connecticut was a sign of things to come.

The key for Iowa State (28-8 in 2013-14) will be to make all those promising pieces fit together, but they always have under Hoiberg.

”The thing about (last year’s) team that was so much fun to coach is how those guys came together and had one common goal,” Hoiberg said. ”That’s what I’m looking for with this group.”

Here are some of the keys to watch for this season as Iowa State tries for its first Big 12 regular season title since 2001.

NIANG’S TRANSFORMATION: The 6-foot-8 Niang may have been Iowa State’s most important player because of his ability to defend in the paint and stretch the floor offensively. Niang’s season-ending foot injury in the second round of the NCAA tournament was a blow the Cyclones couldn’t overcome, as they fell to the eventual national champions at Madison Square Garden. Niang has since lost about 25 pounds, which he hopes will allow him to stay on the floor longer. Niang averaged 16.7 points and 4.5 rebounds last year.

BRYCE VS. KANE: Dejean-Jones has drawn inevitable comparisons to Kane, also a fifth-year transfer. But Dejean-Jones is more of a traditional shooting guard than Kane, though he can play the point if Morris needs a breather. Dejean-Jones was named the Big 12’s preseason Newcomer of the Year. ”DeAndre is probably a guy that would dominate the ball more than Bryce. Bryce is probably a guy that has better range,” Hoiberg said.

MONTE’S TIME: Morris’s nickname is ”Man-Man,” a moniker that’s more fitting than ever. Morris will run Iowa State’s high-flying attack in 2014-15 after a freshman season so promising that he forced Hoiberg to start him alongside Kane by late January. The Cyclones might be exposed a bit if Morris goes down though, since the only other true point guard on the roster is freshman Clayton Custer.

MCKAY IN THE MIDDLE: McKay can’t play until Dec. 20 after leaving Marquette in the middle of his first semester there. But he’s expected to be a major piece for the Cyclones as soon as he’s eligible. McKay was a two-time All-American at Indian Hills Community College in Iowa. McKay, who is 6-foot-9 and 215 pounds, is considered an athletic center that can run the floor and protect the rim. Greek freshman Georgios Tsalmpouris, a 7-foot-1 project, will help fill McKay’s absence in non-conference play.

WINGS: Iowa State has plenty of options along the perimeter. Nader gives the Cyclones the option of going big by playing small forward or going small by playing power forward. Guard Naz Long was 40 percent from 3-point range in 2014-15, and the Cyclones remain high on sophomore Matt Thomas despite an up-and-down first season in Ames. ”We will have tremendous depth on this team, and I’m excited about that depth,” Hoiberg said.

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