This article first ran in 'HOOPS: The Iowa State Way' on December 1, 2016, and can be found at www.isdhoops.com.
AMES, Iowa — Steve Prohm should not be sitting in the position he’s in.
Not at all.
Georges Niang, arguably the best player in Iowa State basketball history, graduated. So did fellow starters Jameel McKay and Abdel Nader.
Naz Mitrou-Long was supposed to graduate. Monté Morris was going to the NBA Draft, forgoing his senior season.
Prohm was going to be left with next to nothing. He was going to be forced to rebuild from the bottom up.
Iowa State should have been a mediocre team this season. All of Fred Hoiberg’s leftovers, who Prohm replaced before last season, are gone.
Yet that’s not how it worked out.
Mitrou-Long was forced to sit out last season because of a hip injury, which gave him a redshirt year and one final season of eligibility.
Morris decided against declaring for the NBA Draft, allowing him another year at Iowa State.
Pair those two with Matt Thomas and Deonte Burton, who both had standout years last season, and Iowa State is now in a position that it shouldn’t have been in.
“God is looking after the Cyclones,” Prohm said. “It’s a good thing.
“It gives us a chance to now put a full recruiting class together without losing a bunch of guys. I think that really, really helps this basketball team. I think we have a chance to overachieve and surprise some people. I’m excited about that.”
Yet that’s the hand Prohm was dealt. And while many have dubbed it as “one of the hardest jobs in college basketball,” Prohm feels pretty good about his first year at Iowa State.
“It was really hard. It was really, really tough,” Prohm said. “I wish I could have done better in some areas, but I grew as a coach.”
When he first arrived in Ames, there was a lot of thoughts going through Prohm’s head. How could he live up to Hoiberg, a man who the majority of Iowa State fans idolize?
There is no simple answer to that question.
“When you replace an A, beloved, and B, legendary figure in Fred Hoiberg, I think you were going to meet some resistance,” ESPN analyst Holly Rowe said. “But I remember this comment that Georges Niang said about halfway through [last] season. ‘Prohm is like the stepdad. He comes in and isn’t quite sure how much discipline or how he can really get on you.’”
Prohm was the stepdad, and the first thing a stepdad does is get to know his kids.
So that was Prohm’s first task.
“The biggest thing I was thinking about [when I got here], in all seriousness, is I have to get relationships with these kids,” Prohm said. “I have to get them to trust me, believe in me.”
Instead of just shifting gears and taking over 100 percent, Prohm listened. He adapted to the style that was already in place at Iowa State. He worked to mix what he could bring with what Hoiberg had left.
“He could have easily come in here and cleaned house if he wanted to,” Mitrou-Long said. “He could have put his foot down and led with an iron fist and just been like, ‘This is my way. This is the way we’re doing it. If you don’t like it, you can go over here.’ But he was accepting to it.”
Things started out smoothly, too.
The Cyclones opened on a nine-game win streak, beating Colorado, Illinois, Virginia Tech and Iowa, among others. It was an impressive start, especially for a rookie coach.
But then the Cyclones fell to Northern Iowa. Two games later they lost to Oklahoma. Then they dropped two out of their next three conference games.
Ames went nuts.
People started calling for Prohm’s job. They wanted him gone.
The backlash caused Prohm to delete his social media accounts. He had to ignore it. And it’s a good thing he did.
Because things improved.
“It just took some time, because most of those kids had been there, Fred recruited them,” Rowe said. “They’ve been this family unit, and now you have a new dad in town, and his system is a little different, and they’re going to run stuff differently, and they have new personnel. I do think it took time, but I think it went really well.”
It took even more time than a midseason stumble for the team to pull together under Prohm’s watch.
Rowe said it didn’t happen until the conference tournament.
“I think the players started understanding he’s a good coach and [they] can trust him,” Rowe said. “I think they started responding to him in timeouts. I think by the time we got to the Big 12 Tournament we really saw that they had bought in. They were with him, and I think that was great.”
But even then, the team didn’t feel together.
Prohm and nearly every member of the team will tell you that they weren’t a complete unit until the first round of the NCAA Tournament in Denver.
After all, they did lose in the first round of the Big 12 Tournament to Oklahoma.
“Right when we got to the tournament,” Mitrou-Long said. “Every player will say that’s when we started playing the best. That’s truly when we started clicking the best."
That’s a long time for adjusting, though. That’s 33 games into the season.
And while he and many other Cyclone fans are surprised that it took Prohm nearly an entire season to take control of the team, Mitrou-Long said he completely understands why it took so long.
“I’m surprised it took that long, but I shouldn’t have been surprised,” Mitrou-Long said. “It’s tough, because it wasn’t his group of kids. You come in and in a couple months you have to build relationships with everybody on the team, implement a new practice plan, implement a whole new playbook, mix in a whole new playbook that he wasn’t used to, put it all together, and head into the season with a top 5 team.”
Yet regardless of the journey it took to get there, fans can’t be unhappy with the results.
“When you come into a place and inherit a top 5 team in the country, you have a lot of expectations,” Mitrou-Long said. “So for him to come in here and soak up the information from the past seniors and then ultimately have a successful season and bring us to the Sweet 16, that’s an underrated task.”
He has four solid pieces in Morris, Mitrou-Long, Thomas and Burton.
“They’re really the four mainstay guys,” Prohm said. “I think we have a good trust in one another, and I really believe in those guys. I think they’re really talented players.”
But height-wise, they’re small pieces. There isn’t a true center to take the place of McKay, who dominated in the paint last season.
That isn’t by design.
“I like a good back-to-the-basket guy,” Prohm said. “I think you have to have balance, inside and outside. That’s the one thing. We can really shoot, but we need to still get to the free throw line. We still need to get post touches. So you never turn down a good big that can score.”
The Cyclones may be forced into a “small-ball” situation, which isn’t always favorable in a conference like the Big 12.
But Mitrou-Long doesn’t think that will be an issue.
“It can be [an issue] if you’re soft. I truly believe this is one of, if not the best, conference in the country with how gritty it is,” Mitrou-Long said. “I think if you’re not tough, you’ll definitely get called out for it. But if you have the guards that we have, experienced guys who work, I think that we’ll be ready for any challenge that comes up to the plate.”
Heading into the season, Iowa State landed at No. 24 in the Associated Press Preseason Poll.
And while that’s lower than many Cyclone fans have been used to in recent years, Prohm can’t complain. With the group he unexpectedly had back, it’s better than he could have hoped for.
“That’s what everybody said, that ‘You’re going to go there for one year and lose everybody, the cupboard is going to be bare and then you’re going to have to recruit everybody,’’’ Prohm said. “It didn’t happen like that.”
He hasn’t missed a beat on building his own recruiting classes, though.
In his short time in Ames, Prohm has built a top 15 recruiting class for the 2017 season, picking up 247Sports 4 star recruits Lindell Wigginton and Terrence Lewis.
Had he not been able to return the guys that he did this season, Prohm said the program as a whole would have suffered a lot longer than just this year. It would have damaged his ability to recruit.
“Now, we’ve got a chance to put a good recruiting class together to go along with a couple of young guys we’ve got in the program and try to keep this program at a high level,” Prohm said.
Regardless of what is to come, Prohm said he is nearly settled into his new job. While he still has areas that he wants to improve on, Prohm is much more confident now than he was one year ago.
And that, he said, will be evident out on the court.
“I’m not all the way there yet,” Prohm said. “I’m still making strides, but I’m getting to be who I am and what I’m about, and I think you’ll see that in how the team plays.”