The list of doubts surrounding last year’s ISU men’s basketball team was a long one.
Dustin Hogue was too small. Georges Niang was not athletic enough. Melvin Ejim was a player without a position. DeAndre Kane could not control his temper and led the NCAA in technical fouls at Marshall the year before.
Yet, none of this dissuaded ISU basketball coach Fred Hoiberg. After all, four years ago when Iowa State hired Hoiberg, he had never coached a single college basketball game in his entire life.
Hoiberg's unlikely group of misfits, some unproven and others undervalued, united under a coach who knew all too well what it was like having his credentials questioned. Together they shattered all doubt, leaving shards of criticism in their wake as Iowa State marched to one of its five most productive seasons in the school's 107-year history, highlighted by a Big 12 tournament title as well as a berth in the Sweet 16.
"Before, we were an average basketball team," Niang said. "Now we are looked at as an elite program. I think [Hoiberg] changed the culture to be about winning and not about individual egos. That is the biggest difference."
The 6-foot-6-inch Hogue finished third in the Big 12 in total rebounding, despite being undersized. The “unathletic” Niang ranked third in the conference in usage percentage as the offense ran heavily through the savvy and versatile forward all season. The positional hybrid by the name of Ejim won Big 12 Player of the Year, while the volatile Kane tallied exactly zero technical fouls on his way to earning All-Big 12 and All-American honors.
The question that remains is how was Hoiberg able to piece together a patchwork of transfers and cagey veterans to produce one of the best seasons Iowa State has ever seen?
The answer lies in a science that is far from exact.
Hoiberg the Chemist
At this point in college basketball, the word chemistry is a cliche.
Players migrate in and out of every program in the country due to graduation, transfers and the NBA draft. The constant flow of personnel continuously alters the elements that a coaching staff has at its disposal.
It is only natural that when the elements change, the formula must change.
The complex laboratory of major college basketball includes international recruiting trips, tenuous ventures into the raucous gyms of conference rivals and hours upon hours of preparation, analysis and practice. The one constant amid the chaos is the presence of a definitive basketball theory implemented by the steady hand of a proven leader.
Iowa State possesses that constant.
"That is why the chemistry issue is hilarious," said ISU assistant basketball coach Matt Abdelmassih. "Everyone says at this time of year, 'Well, who knows what the chemistry is bringing in new guys?' That is the most overrated thing. We have proven for four years now that we are pretty good at making sure the chemistry is well set with the guys buying into their roles, and that is because of Fred."
Hoiberg was not always the mad scientist scouring the globe for new components and molding his theories by the light of flickering game tape. Before being hired by his alma mater, Hoiberg worked as an executive for the Minnesota Timberwolves, a team for which he played during his time in the NBA.
Then in April 2010, an opportunity presented itself.
The ISU basketball program stood mired in mediocrity and on the cusp of national irrelevance, having missed the NCAA tournament for five consecutive seasons. Tired of sitting at home year after year while Iowa State’s peers reveled in the excitement and pageantry of March Madness, ISU Athletic Director Jamie Pollard decided to take action.
On the hunt for a catalyst to change the program’s direction, Pollard reached out to Hoiberg, a hometown hero dubbed “The Mayor” by the Ames community, and he answered the call.
Hoiberg brought with him to Ames a basketball theory that relies heavily on sharing the ball and shooting well from the perimeter, the catalyst of which is unselfish play.
"For any team there has to be sacrifice," Hoiberg said. "You cannot be worried about your individual numbers or individual statistics. Great things happen to everybody if you win."
Characterized by a pacing that might be dubbed frenetic if it did not run so smoothly, Hoiberg's brand of basketball has transformed Iowa State into one of the nation's most exciting and electric teams.
In 2009-10, the year before Hoiberg took over the program, Iowa State averaged roughly 72 points per game and shot only 17 3-pointers per contest. Since his arrival, the Cyclones’ point production has risen in every season except one, peaking last year at 83 points per game, the fifth highest mark in the nation. No ISU team with Hoiberg at the helm has attempted fewer than 23 3-point shots per outing.
After years of tweaking the formula, Hoiberg found the magic mix of passing and shooting last season as his team not only blew opponents off the floor with its overall point production, but also shared the ball more effectively than any outfit in the country, averaging 18.5 assists per game.
Filling the Voids
A notion of how to play was not enough, however. The translation of Hoiberg's style into the on-the-court success seen during his tenure required drawing the requisite talent into the program. That task called for an effective salesman.
While the idea of “team over player” that permeates Hoiberg's philosophy might seem a counter-intuitive strategy to recruiting some of the nation's top athletic talent, most of whom dream about starring in the NBA one day, the opposite has actually proven to be true.
Simply put, Hoiberg provides prospects with opportunities that they want, allowing him to procure the missing pieces to his yearly puzzle and create a picture of play at which ISU fans can marvel.
It all starts with the specific brand of basketball he offers.
"I was [attracted to] the looseness and the freeness of how Fred lets his guys play," redshirt junior forward Abdel Nader said.
A Genuine Presence
The scheme and free-flowing style that governs the Cyclones' in-game strategy is merely an extension of the philosophy of unity and unselfishness that Hoiberg begins promoting the first time he meets a recruit.
The consistency and the reliability of what Hoiberg preaches and teaches, and how those messages are reinforced by his actions both on and off the court, is also something that speaks volumes to the young men under his guidance.
"A lot of people on this team do not have a father in their life, like myself," sophomore guard Monte Morris said. "My father passed, and he was not even really in my life at the time, so I just had a mom. I came here, and coach opened up to me and [let me know] he was there for me any time. Things like that go a long way."
Hoiberg is someone who his players believe they can trust, which Nader said is a rare commodity in the modern landscape of college basketball.
"He is in your corner," Nader said. "He has your back as long as you do what you are supposed to do, and that is a good feeling. A lot of guys do not have that before they come here."
The trust he constructs contributes to Hoiberg's ability to get players to buy in to the basketball system that the coach is selling. The coach's sincerity and his track record of winning at every level, starting in high school and extending to a decade-long career in the NBA, lends a credibility to the ISU program that entices prospects and provides a sense of solidarity to those already committed to Iowa State.
After all, Hoiberg has stood exactly where all of his players stand now. He too stared up at the rafters in Hilton Coliseum and dreamed of hanging championship banners, sporting the same ISU jersey that his players now wear proudly.
"He builds relationships with his guys," junior Naz Long said. "He implements everything through work and through character. He will [speak to] us real, let us know right from wrong, and he is not going to sugarcoat anything."
Hoiberg's genuine nature is evident. It is not public relations. It is not generic coach speak. It is real.
"He actually cares," Niang said. "It is more than basketball with him. It is life."
A Break from the Norm
Hoiberg's approach to personal relationships with his players has also freed him to be a non-traditional thinker and a risk-taker, using the NCAA recruiting system to build ISU basketball by way of transfer students who were relative misfits at their previous programs.
"I talked to our staff about getting guys in here that could help us compete for a championship," Hoiberg said. "Now it is about putting guys in the right spots…and to continue to recruit at a high level where you get [those] type of players."
Iowa State's record of recruiting transfers in the Hoiberg era has been one of the best in the nation. The list is long, but the name that jumps out the most is Kane.
Kane was a dynamic scorer at Marshall who could create his own shot off the dribble, which is a rare and therefore highly sought-after skill. Yet as a shooter, Kane hovered around below average.
Guards are required to have at least adequate jump shooting ability in Hoiberg's run-and-gun, 3-point soaked system that demands accuracy from the perimeter.
Despite Kane's relative shooting woes, Hoiberg pursued and landed the fifth-year senior.
Kane's progression after arriving in Ames is perhaps the quintessential example during Hoiberg's tenure of finding talent and molding it to his specific style of basketball.
Under mayoral tutelage, Kane's shooting percentage skyrocketed a startling eight points in one season from just more than 40 percent to just above 48 percent, spurring him to a first-team All-Big 12 selection and third-team All-American honors.
"It shows you that coach can take a guy from another program and turn him into a household name, just like DeAndre," Morris said. "Deandre came here after Royce White, and there was a lot of talk going on that he was this and that, and that he led the country in technical fouls. But he got here and had none of that. I do not think he had one technical here. It just shows you the type of coach [Hoiberg] can be and how he grooms his players to be good young men."
A Ripple Effect
Prospects are able to behold tangible examples of the type of drastic player development, both physical and mental, that can occur at Iowa State in as little as one year, which is a valuable recruiting tool.
Hoiberg's ability to revamp a career on a limited timetable has already paid dividends again, aiding the program in landing another high-profile transfer in 2014.
Bryce Dejean-Jones joined the Cyclones for his final collegiate season after averaging more than 13 points per game at UNLV last year.
Redshirt junior Jameel McKay, who was enrolled at Marquette before transferring to Iowa State, sat out last season. The 2013 transfer will likely be the starting center and a key piece both offensively and defensively for a team that again hopes to challenge for a Big 12 crown as well as a national title.
Despite the turnover in personnel and the slight adjustments in formula, the constants of style and strategy for Iowa State have not changed.
Transfers will again play a key role in 2014 as Dejean-Jones and McKay will be worked in and around program mainstays Hogue, Niang, Morris and Long until maximum efficiency and effectiveness are attained.
"We still have not won a league championship, and we still, obviously, have not won a national championship," Hoiberg said. "Those are the things we are trying to achieve. At the same time, the program is in a spot now where we can have those expectations. Now, it is [about] living up to them."
Hoiberg's unique, mix-and-match model of success has done more than just turn the Iowa State program from a perennial .500 team into a national contender faster than anyone might have expected. It has perpetuated a flow of non-traditional talent into the program, which in turn has helped the team recruit traditional freshman better than it has in previous years due to the increased notoriety brought on by consistent winning.
"The biggest thing when you think about coming to Iowa State is Fred," freshman Clayton Custer said. "He is the main reason I think a lot of us probably came here. He is a genuine dude and I believe in what he has going here. It is a program on the rise."
Driving the Numbers
The winning combined with the exciting brand of basketball has produced wide-ranging effects that extend beyond recruiting. It has also reinvigorated the ISU fan base, which is evident in the droves of fans now clamoring for seats inside Hilton Coliseum.
From 2003 until Hoiberg arrived in 2010, Iowa State cracked the NCAA's top 25 in total attendance only once. During the last three seasons, Iowa State has not only made the list of the NCAA's top 25 most-watched teams, but has climbed up that list each year. Iowa State finished 24th, 22nd and 20th in attendance during the last three seasons respectively, according to NCAA tabulations.
The Cyclones drew more than 14,000 fans for every home game in 2013-14 and had to turn down students at the door on multiple occasions, as well as deny requests for season tickets due to a lack of seating availability.
Hoiberg's success has not gone unnoticed outside of Ames and the state of Iowa, as he is routinely brought up in media conversations about available head coaching jobs in the NBA.
For now anyway, Hoiberg has committed to sticking around at Iowa State where he can continue to improve the program with his eye for under-appreciated talent and his patchwork abilities to construct cohesion out of chaos.
Every role Hoiberg has assumed, from chemist to tactician, from father figure to leader, from non-traditional thinker to risk-taker, has played a part in the revitalization of the ISU basketball community.
"You have got to give it up to Fred,” Nader said. “The university is a cool place, campus life is great, but if you are a real basketball player and you are looking for a place with a guy that will let you play, there is no better coach in the nation."