Not even 24 hours had passed since Iowa State's season-ending 81-76 loss to UConn in the Sweet Sixteen, and a new, bold narrative had been spun:
The Cyclones will be even better next year.
Perhaps that's underestimating the difficulty of replacing departing seniors DeAndre Kane and Melvin Ejim, but it works if we think about it in a couple of ways.
1. Monté Morris can make up a lot of Kane's production. Kane, a 6-foot-4, 200-pound bull, was tremendous last season, with per-game averages of 17.1 points, 6.8 rebounds and 5.9 assists.
Morris said in New York he needs to add up to 20 pounds to his 6-foot-2, 170-pound frame, and he's confident in his ability to score the ball. The metrics support that. Hot late-season shooting increased the freshman's three-point percentage to 40.6 while his true-shooting mark of 57 graded out better than Kane's and No. 402 nationally.
Morris' offensive rating of 125.1, per kenpom.com, is No. 49 nationally.
Hitting Kane's per-game clip of 5.9 assists should be easy for Morris, who averaged 3.7 as a freshman with a good assist rate (20.4), considering his role. Next season Morris will be running point most of the time, spreading the ball around to a returning group of improving outside shooters and working with Georges Niang in a two-man game.
If Morris' offensive game progresses accordingly, he should be the Big 12's second-best point guard behind Juwan Staten.
2. Ejim won't leave behind a huge offensive hole and his rebounding can be accounted for. Coach Fred Hoiberg said he called most of his plays for Kane and Niang, while Ejim was the recipient of kick-outs to the three-point line, where he scored 22 percent of his points as a senior, and simple offensive plays like post-ups and oops.
Georges Niang will handle the load on the block, while the Cyclones can find outside shooting from other parties.
On the glass, it'll be up to Dustin Hogue and Jameel McKay. Ejim averaged a very nice 8.4 rebounds a game but saw his offensive rebounding rate dip to a career-low (no surprise, as he was taking more shots), and had a defensive rebounding rate of 18.7 below his sophomore and junior years (24.6 and 20.4).
Hogue's offensive rebounding numbers — he swiped 9.4 percent of available boards on that end — will likely dip with a tweaked role, but his defensive rebounding rate, which ranked No. 180 nationally, shouldn't budge much. The junior notched 8.4 rebounds a game, just like Ejim.
3. Matt Thomas improves while Abdel Nader contributes. Thomas didn't live up to expectations as a freshman, shooting just 33.6 percent from the perimeter. Chalk it up to issues in confidence and scheme. A freshman on a veteran-laden team, Thomas didn't feel comfortable jacking up the kind of shots he did in high school. His role as a catch-and-shoot guy was different from his time in high school, when he often brought the ball up the court.
Thomas is a gym rat, so he ought to enter his sophomore year feeling more comfortable with his role and his shot.
Meanwhile, Nader — who sat out this season after transferring from Northern Illinois — is more of a slashing wing, with an outside shot that he struggled with his first two seasons (but we said the same thing about Kane, didn't we?) He was the Huskies' go-to guy in 2012-13, taking 42.1 percent of the shots and ending 36.9 percent of possessions. Each number was No. 1 nationally. He was hardly efficient, with dismal percentages from inside and the perimeter, but Nader was asked to do a ton on a team without much talent.
Hoiberg has kept a short bench the last two seasons, so if you figure shoo-ins for big playing time next season (Morris, Hogue, Niang, Naz Long, McKay) that leaves two to three guys in line to pick up a healthy chunk of minutes. It depends on who Hoiberg brings in from the transfer ranks, but Thomas and Nader should get good playing time.
4. Help is on its way. The offseason transfer list continues to grow, BYU guard Matt Carlino the latest big name in search of greener pastures. The Cyclones had a visit planned with Temple grad Anthony Lee, a ferocious rebounder, but he committed to Ohio State the other day. Hoiberg will point to his transfer success rate during this period of de facto free agency. There's a minimum of two scholarship spots available, though attrition is likely.
Iowa State is probably looking to add a body down low — a need — and then get the best player it can, like Bryce Dejean-Jones, formerly of UNLV.
5. Hello, rim-protector. If McKay, the transfer from Indian Hills, lives up to the hype, the Cyclones will have their first true rim protector of the Hoiberg era, a much-needed defensive boon for at team that was No. 281 in defensive block percentage. McKay swatted two shots a game at Indian Hills.
If Niang hadn't broken his fifth metatarsal, Iowa State might still be playing. If the Cyclones were Final Four-bound, or even if they had been bounced in the Elite Eight instead of the ground before, there wouldn't be much of this "the team will be better next year stuff." Perspective is needed. Hoiberg will be hard-pressed to field a starting five next season that trumps Kane-Morris-Hogue-Ejim-Niang, but the Cyclones still should be good enough to get to the second weekend of the NCAA tournament, at which point all bets are off.
Popular opinion has the Cyclones improving on their 28-8 record and Sweet Sixteen finish next season. It hurts to lose DeAndre Kane and Melvin Ejim, but how can ISU replace the two? Improvement from Monté Morris and Matt Thomas, and the additions of Jameel McKay and Abdel Nader should help. Head inside for a full breakdown