CEDAR RAPIDS — Three years ago, Iowa State offered its fans a popular, familiar face as the new men’s basketball coach, and a blank slate beyond that.
How would Fred Hoiberg, who had never coached at any level, be able to swim with the sharks of the Big 12 Conference and the rest of major-college basketball?
“Fans want hiring a coach to be a science,” ISU Athletic Director Jamie Pollard said Tuesday at the Cyclone Tailgate Tour stop at NewBo City Market. “But it’s really an art.
“Everybody can’t win, mathematically. So you need to find who’s the best fit. There wasn’t anybody who was a better fit for Iowa State than Fred Hoiberg.”
But winning makes you a good fit. Hoiberg’s hire was overwhelmingly popular in Cyclone circles, but there were skeptics outside of Ames. Could he bench-coach, could he prepare a team? More importantly, really, could he recruit?
“I thought that was the biggest question,” Pollard admits now. “How would he acclimate to recruiting? It was a different world for him.”
The path Hoiberg took in stocking a roster for the last two seasons — two seasons with resounding NCAA tournament victories over Big East clubs of note — wasn’t to bring in a platoon of preps and try to gradually mold them into a competitive Big 12 team. That would have been a recipe for a lot of defeats and a crawl to respectability.
In an instant-gratification world, he needed competitive and compelling teams to sell to future recruits.
Iowa State was 16-16 overall in Hoiberg’s first season, but a mere 3-13 in the Big 12. In his second year, though, the transfers he had taken in became eligible to play. Royce White, Chris Allen, Chris Babb and Anthony Booker helped the team to 23 wins and a rout of Connecticut in the NCAAs.
In 2012-2013, White and Allen were gone, but transfers Will Clyburn and Korie Lucious joined Babb as three-fifths of the starting lineup for a Cyclones team that won 23 games for the second-straight year and walloped Notre Dame in the NCAA tourney.
Funny thing. For all the trouble that is associated with transfers, Hoiberg’s brought none.
“Talking to them and using background checks,” Hoiberg said, “I was very comfortable with that route, and how it worked out. We’ve had two great years. We were a call away (in a third-round NCAA loss to Ohio State) from maybe the Final Four. I felt the road ahead was favorable, and we were playing as well as anybody at that time.”
Last season, forward Georges Niang joined Melvin Ejim as ISU original recruits who sparkled. Freshman guard Sherron Dorsey-Walker of Detroit red-shirted last season, and a couple of nice recruits are on their way.
Guard Matt Thomas scored over 2,000 points at Onalaska (Wis.) High. Point guard Monte Morris of Flint, Mich., led his team to a state-championship and was the first “Mr. Basketball” in Michigan not to sign with Michigan State since 2008.
“I’m very excited about sprinkling them in and building our roster the right way,” Hoiberg said.
But what is “the right way” these days? Kentucky won a national-title in 2012 almost exclusively with freshmen who bolted for the NBA after that glorious season.
In the meantime, there were over 450 transfers from Division I programs last year, and this year’s list already contains over 400. Just this week, Nkereuwem Okoro transferred from ISU to Rutgers. Patrick Ingram announced he was leaving Iowa, immediately leading to speculation his scholarship could get filled by a fellow transfer.
“Now we’re competing with Kansas, Duke and Kentucky for them,” Hoiberg said. “Everybody’s taking them.”
But whether transfers or preps are your original building blocks, you still have to be able to coach.
“I think we’ve done a good job defining roles, which is as important as anything in today’s game,” Hoiberg said.
“Leading the nation in 3-pointers and being third in scoring, that stuff helps. Kids like playing with freedom.”Hoiberg’s approval rating at NewBo Tuesday night was probably 100 percent. The questions of three years ago have received the answers Cyclone Nation wanted.