AMES, Iowa -- Curfew is midnight, sharp. That's the rule.
At 12:01, every good and bad thing junior Monte Morris did on the basketball court that day -- every made or missed shot, every nifty bounce pass or regrettable rotation, every cheer from every fan -- melts into the ether.
"I don't dwell on games, ever," Morris said. "It's just something weird that I've always been able to do."
It's not weird at all, actually, not if you can see it the way Morris sees it, and what Morris sees is an inescapable truth: He'll never play that game again for the rest of his life. There is no mind or machine or virtual reality headset in the world capable of recreating the precise spatial coordinates that Iowa State's point guard just passed through. There is no way to swim back against the currents of time.
So, at 12:01, the mental curfew descends. That's the rule. It's a good rule. The only weird thing about it is that it isn't more widely adopted, even by Morris' Cyclones teammates.
"Monte is really good at letting stuff go, but the rest of us?" Iowa State senior Georges Niang said. "It bites at us all the time."
"It," of course, is March 19, 2015, in Louisville, Kentucky, when the third-seeded Iowa State Cyclones met No. 14 UAB in the first round of the NCAA tournament.
That morning, the Blazers were of little concern. This was, after all, an Iowa State team coming off a Big 12 tournament title and five-straight double-digit comeback wins. UAB had won an ugly Conference USA's automatic bid at a tournament held two miles from its campus. Iowa State was the latest, and maybe best, iteration of ISU icon Fred Hoiberg's half-decade of good basketball and better vibes. The Blazers had 15 losses.
By 3 p.m. ET, nine hours before Morris' nightly curfew, the Blazers still had 15 losses.
On March 30, a devastated and determined Niang announced his return to Ames, Iowa. On May 29, Chicago Bulls general manager Gar Forman fired coach Tom Thibodeau. On June 2, the Bulls hired Hoiberg. On June 8, Iowa State hired Murray State head coach Steve Prohm.
On Thursday, in his newly adopted town of Ames, Prohm will lead a No. 4-ranked Iowa State team against hated in-state rival Iowa. For fans in the state, it is a massive game. For the unbeaten Cyclones, it is a noteworthy early test.
For their head coach, though, Thursday is one more piece of a project he began months ago, when he agreed to tackle one of the most unique transitions in recent college hoops history. For Prohm, every game, news conference, practice and appearance is one more chance to thread the invisible needle between what came before and what comes next.
Because when you're The Man Who Replaced Fred Hoiberg, the past doesn't obey curfew.
Scene: An Ames, Iowa Applebee's. Stage left: Iowa State women's basketball coach Bill Fennelly, in an ISU polo and khakis. Stage right: A giant yellow and purple felt nutcracker with a disturbing face and Raggedy Ann hair. Fennelly asks: "Why are you wearing that, Steve?"
"I was told that if coaches wore their favorite Christmas toy costumes folks would donate a toy to the Coaches' Toy Drive," Prohm responds.
"Who told you that?" Fennally asks.
So goes the punchline for one of Prohm's first public-facing advertisements in Ames, and the joke only works because it is so obviously impossible. Hoiberg was Ames-famous before he was 18. The son of an ISU professor and an elementary school teacher, Hoiberg grew up five minutes from Hilton Coliseum. He was the quarterback of the Ames High football team and the captain of the basketball team. In 1991, he led Ames hoops to a state title, was named Iowa's Mr. Basketball, and turned down a host of offers to join his hometown Cyclones. He would lead ISU to three NCAA tournament appearances. He was first-team All-Big Eight as a senior. He finished his career among the top seven players in ISU hoops history in nearly every statistical category.
His nickname is "The Mayor," a moniker sealed by a 1993 Ames municipal election, during Hoiberg's sophomore season, in which the Cyclones' star received a not-insignificant number of write-in votes. Were Hoiberg to run for the actual office of Mayor of Ames, the United Nations would condemn the results out of sheer habit: No one really wins 98 percent of the vote.
And that was all true before 2010. That's when Hoiberg, after a 15-year career in the NBA (10 as a player, five as a Minnesota Timberwolves scout) took the vacant head coaching position at Iowa State. Without any formal coaching experience on his resume, it was easy to accuse a then-struggling ISU program of selling nostalgia in place of wins. The hiring was met with little fanfare. (At Big 12 media day in 2010, Hoiberg thanked a reporter for visiting his otherwise empty conference table. "It was starting to get embarrassing," he said.) What if Hoiberg failed? What if his otherwise spotless legacy at ISU was even slightly tarnished? What if his approval rate fell to -- gasp -- 90 percent?
That never became an issue. The exact opposite, actually: In his second season, thanks to a beautiful spread-offensive system and his willingness to give transfer players second (or third) chances, Hoiberg had taken Iowa State from 15-17 to the NCAA tournament. For Iowa State fans packing Hilton Coliseum, a joyous return to relevance became a quasi-religious ritual.
Being good was one thing. Being good because of Hoiberg was different. The history, the memories, the down-to-the-block local ties: For a few years, Ames was home to an emotional climate with no real precedent in modern college basketball history. When Hoiberg took the Chicago Bulls job, ISU fans weren't even mad. They were sad, but it was the proud sadness of parents sending their first-born to college.
What coach in his right mind would want to try to follow that?
"Somebody was joking with me," Prohm said, laughing as he tells it. "They said, 'He's a big cloud over your head right now. But don't worry: In a couple of years, when you're doing well, the cloud will ... turn into a statue of Fred.'
"You know, you can joke about it a little bit," Prohm said. "I do hear about it every day. He's a superhero here. You've got to embrace it. Because I'm not trying to replace him."
It's mid-October, a bright but ominously chilly day in Central Iowa, and practice is about to begin. Players pop out of the team lounge or sneak in a last shot at a nearby hoop before gathering with their coaches at the center of the Sukup Basketball Complex. Family members, in town for the following night's Hilton Madness, find seats near the wall.
Prohm stands at the center of the team's huddle. Players look in his direction, which is the only way someone outside the huddle could tell who, if anyone, was speaking. Prohm has no booming threats of baseline sprints, no histrionics with which to declare the start of another very serious practice. He's quiet.
Texas A&M coach Billy Kennedy has known Prohm since the latter was 24, a newly hired volunteer assistant at Centenary College. As Kennedy worked his way up the coaching ladder, to Southeastern Louisiana and then Murray State, Prohm followed. From 1998 to 2011, the two were on the same staff for every season but one.
Kennedy knows Prohm. And "quiet" is not how he'd describe him.
"He's loud," Kennedy said. "He's funny. He does a great impression of Dick Vitale."
The discrepancy between these two descriptions lies in the type of coach Prohm is. There are coaches who believe that success proves a certain inherent rightness, that theirs is the one true way the game must be played. Prohm is the other type, the kind who happily adapts himself to the people and the situation around him, if that's what the situation requires.
The latest example is far more extreme, but thus far the template holds. The Cyclones have averaged 76.2 possessions per game in their first seven games, making them the 11th-fastest team in the country; a season ago, they ranked 13th. Stylistically, Iowa State is still running almost all of the same secondary-break stuff Hoiberg installed, still shooting well-above 50 percent from inside the arc, still not rebounding many of its misses, and still not needing to.
After he was hired -- months later than most new coaches -- one of Prohm's first to-dos was to sit down with his team, particularly his four seniors and Morris. What worked? What didn't? What about what they were doing allowed them to have success? His last Murray State team played fast, efficient offense, too, but the sets he was running were different. How much should he take with him? What balance would work best?
He had the first of many conversations with Hoiberg, whose feedback was less about professional courtesy than a very personal interest in seeing Iowa State's continued success.
And he spoke to Fordham coach Jeff Neubauer, a former assistant at West Virginia under John Beilein, when Beilein's unusual 1-3-1 zone helped take the Mountaineers deep into the NCAA tournament. Amid general X's and O's talk, Neubauer reminded Prohm that when Bob Huggins took over in Morgantown, West Virginia, he asked his seniors to teach his team the 1-3-1.
"Jeff said, 'You should think about that,' Prohm said. "And that's when I was like, you know what, I'm just going to be with these guys. I'm going to talk offense and watch tape with them and bounce things off, and if we need to just run a lot of Fred's stuff, then that's what we're going to do. It's what they've been successful with. It's what they feel comfortable with."
If Prohm is going to make his own unique mark on the program in year one, in ways outside of the occasional tweak or new sideline out of bounds set, it may come on the defensive end. The Cyclones are applying more ball pressure, guarding shooters better, grabbing more of their opponents' misses and, as a result, allowing fewer points per trip than at any point during the Hoiberg regime.
As promising as those numbers are, they are the products of small samples. Even there, Prohm is mildly cautious about sacrificing ISU's core offensive competency by dedicating too much energy to defense. Early defensive improvement aside, the Iowa State you see now is the Iowa State you saw last season. This is according to plan.
"We're probably doing 25 percent of the things we did at Murray," Prohm said. "And I'm talking about from an overall standpoint. Program, practice, everything. Because I think it would be too much of a change. It's not about me, it's not about you putting your foot down. It's about, what do these kids need?"
"Coach Prohm doesn't really have an ego," Niang said. "He isn't trying to change the things we do. He understands that this is a big year for the guys that have been here for a long time."
And therein lies the final challenge of Prohm's transition, as if there weren't enough already. Inheriting a team with national championship aspirations is, at least perceptually, the biggest no-win situation in the sport. And yet, to date, Prohm has treated his team's expectations the way he has treated the spectre of his predecessor: with a warm, open embrace.
In October, Prohm opened his first address to his first packed Hilton Madness crowd with a solemn declaration: Everything he and his staff did this season would be with the best interest of his players, particularly his four seniors, at heart. Minutes earlier, Niang had been the final Cyclone to run out of the tunnel and onto the court. The roar at his introduction was the loudest of the night, loud like a home game against Kansas is loud.
The face of Iowa State basketball could have been drafted this past summer. His stock fluctuated, but after Golden State's paradigm-breaking NBA title, Niang's unique skill set might have been in greater demand than ever. Instead, he returned, mostly because he couldn't stomach the idea of that game being his last game in an Iowa State uniform.
The loss was bad enough. The way it happened was worse.
"We thought we could just stagger out there and nonchalantly beat them," Niang said. "They taught us a valuable lesson. You can't just walk into any game thinking you can win no matter what."
That lesson pushed Iowa State's players all summer. Things are more urgent now, more purposeful. Niang, forward Jameel McKay, and guards Abdel Nader and Nazareth Mitrou-Long are all seniors. Morris, a junior, could leave after this season; if he stays, his next team is unlikely to be this talented. Meanwhile, the 2015-16 landscape is unusually wide open. The time is now. Days, practices, sprints, touches: None of them can be wasted.
At some point this summer, someone changed the Sukop facility scoreboard. It read "60-59." It stayed that way for months.
Even Morris, he of the mental curfew, admits the UAB game hasn't vanished entirely.
"After midnight, I don't dwell," Morris said. "But I do remember plays. And I remember every play from that game."
On one side there is the folk hero, the man whose cloud will someday turn into a statue, the man who grew up in Ames and went to college in Ames and then returned to Ames to ice his legend with a five-year project of brilliant, beautiful basketball.
On the other side is the team he left behind, maybe his best team, one determined to leave its own legacy, determined to give Iowa State fans something more to remember than "60-59," and one that knows that legacy will have to be built immediately.
In the middle of it all is Prohm, taking the Hoiberg jokes in stride, tweaking things as he goes, doing his best to find the most productive balance between what his team is comfortable with and what it needs, between Hoiberg and himself, between what has been and what is.
"Sometimes you just got to put stuff in the past," Niang said. "But not too far in the past."
Maybe it's a good thing Morris' curfew isn't universal. For Prohm and his players, the past is proving useful. For now.