Iowa State coach Fred Hoiberg and the Cyclones look ready to be nationally relevant for years to come, even after their breakout season ended in a Sweet Sixteen loss to Connecticut.
The Cyclones won 28 games and the Big 12 tournament title and reached the Sweet Sixteen for the first time in 14 years. Iowa State (28-8) also put a pair of players on the All-Big 12 first team, including Player of the Year Melvin Ejim.
The season came to an end Friday night with an 81-76 loss to Connecticut in New York in the regional semifinals of the NCAA tournament.
"We fought all the way to the buzzer, and that's something I told our guys. You walk out of Madison Square Garden with your head held high," Hoiberg said.
The Cyclones will have a lot to replace in Ejim, who finished a brilliant career with 1,643 points and 1,051 rebounds, and point guard DeAndre Kane, whose only season in Ames turned out to be one of the best in school history.
Who knows how far the Cyclones could have gone in the NCAA tournament had sophomore Georges Niang not broken his foot against North Carolina Central? But the good news for Iowa State is that Niang should be healthy in about a month or so — and a healthy Niang should be one of the best players in the Big 12 next season.
Niang averaged 16.7 points and 4.5 rebounds in 2013-14. Those numbers could easily go up next season without Ejim and Kane in the lineup.
It'll be next to impossible to replace the production of Kane, who finished with 17.1 points, 6.8 rebounds and 5.9 assists as a senior transfer. But freshman point guard Monte Morris turned out to be a find for the Cyclones, forcing his way into the starting lineup by mid-season and likely halting the revolving door the program has had at point guard under Hoiberg.
Forward Dustin Hogue will be a senior next season, and Iowa State is certainly hoping that his 34-point breakout performance against UConn is a sign of things to come.
Guard Naz Long made steady progression as a sophomore, emerging as one of the nation's top shooters in late-game situations. If Long develops more consistency, he could be a candidate for All-Big 12 honors over the next two years.
Freshman Matt Thomas struggled at times with his shot. But he also showed plenty of polish and remains a key building block for the future.
Once again, the Cyclones also have a pair of key transfers entering the mix for 2014-15.
If Jameel McKay and Abdel Nader pan out as expected, Iowa State shouldn't lack for size as it did at times this season.
Hoiberg is counting on McKay, a 6-foot-9 forward and a two-time junior college All-American, to be the shot blocker he's never had in four years in Ames. Nader, a 6-foot-6 small forward, led Northern Illinois with 13.1 points a game in 2012-13 and, like McKay, has had a year to get acclimated to Hoiberg's system.
Incoming freshman Clayton Custer, a top-100 point guard from the Kansas City area, is currently the only player in Iowa State's latest recruiting class. But the Cyclones have one scholarship left to dole out for next season if they choose to do so, and they'll likely again be in the mix for an impact senior transfer.
Iowa State made the leap this season from being a program that simply made the NCAA tournament to one that was a serious threat to reach the Final Four.
Given Hoiberg's increasing stellar track record and the wealth of talent already on the roster, that shouldn't change anytime soon.