AMES, Iowa (AP) The biggest question facing Steve Prohm this season isn’t one rookie coaches generally have to address: How can the new guy get through to a group of veteran players talented enough to win a national title?
Instead of trying to come up with the answer on his own, Prohm has turned to his biggest star, Iowa State senior Georges Niang, for help.
Prohm has taken the unorthodox step of inviting Niang into his office for bi-weekly, private chats about the seventh-ranked Cyclones – some lasting as long as 90 minutes – in an effort to fully connect with the team that Fred Hoiberg left behind when he took the coaching job with the Chicago Bulls.
“He’s won a lot of games. He’s a senior. He’s a leader. He’s a captain,” Prohm said. “He’s earned that opportunity.”
Still, it’s unusual to see a college coach turn to a single player for advice multiple times a week – and nearly every day through texts.
But Prohm’s situation has been highly unusual from the moment he arrived in Ames. He inherited a Final Four-caliber roster. Niang, seniors Naz Long, Jameel McKay and Abdel Nader and star junior point guard Monte Morris are all as strong-willed as they are talented. They are the core of a team that won 25 games and the Big 12 tournament last season.
Perhaps not since Bill Guthridge took over for Dean Smith at North Carolina in the late 1990s has a first-year coach had such a great shot at a national championship.
Prohm quickly realized that changing things didn’t make much sense when he arrived from Murray State after piling up a 104-29 record over four seasons running a fast-paced, high-scoring offense. But Prohm also knew that he wouldn’t get anywhere if the Iowa State veterans didn’t follow his lead.
Prohm thought back to Bob Huggins during his first year at West Virginia, when Huggins had his seniors install his preferred 1-3-1 pressure defense as a way to build team unity.
Using that for inspiration, Prohm made Niang a de facto liaison between the coaching staff and his teammates as they prepare for the season-opener Nov. 13 against Colorado.
At the heart of Niang and Prohm’s private talks is a shared desire to take the up-tempo offense Iowa State ran so well under Hoiberg and marry it with Prohm’s desire for more defensive toughness.
“I think it’s actually super cool that you have a coach that has no ego and really wants to sit down and understand what’s going through your mind,” Niang said.
One of the many things Prohm has learned in his meetings is that Niang has a shrewd basketball mind. Niang was an overlooked recruit while playing prep school ball in New Hampshire alongside Nerlens Noel, now with the Philadelphia 76ers. Last season, Niang averaged 15.3 points, 5.4 rebounds and 3.4 assists and earned third-team All-America honors.
“He makes you continue to keep thinking, keep probing, keep trying to find different things to challenge him,” Prohm said. “Great feel for the game. Great understanding of the game and how to make people better. I just think he’s a special player, and I’m fortunate to be able to coach him.”
Though Niang and Prohm’s talks typically revolve around basketball, they often expand to issues beyond the game. Niang said he often loses track of time while in Prohm’s office, a place where Niang has found a mentor.
“He’s always constantly like, `Forget this. Forget that. I just want to have a great year for you seniors and really send you off right,”‘ Niang said. “They could have brought in anyone that said, `Forget what you’re talking about. I need to run a program. I don’t care what you think.’ For him to put that aside and want the best for us, that really just speaks volumes about his character, and that’s obviously a person I want to be around for the rest of my life.”