AMES, Iowa (AP) -There wasn't much to cheer about last season at Hilton Coliseum, so the Iowa State student section championed what they believed to be a worthy cause.
``Free Lucca!''
That's the chant often heard before tip-off at home games. Inevitably, the player who inspired it - German shooting guard Lucca Staiger - would pop out of his seat and, with a sheepish grin, acknowledge his supporters with a humble wave.
Cyclones fans will get their wish this year.
Lucca is free.
Staiger was forced to sit out the 2007-08 season and forgo a year of eligibility after the NCAA ruled that several of his teammates on a German club team received stipends deemed to be above actual and necessary expenses. The move didn't sit well with Iowa State, which exhausted the appeals process in an attempt to restore Staiger's eligibility. Coach Greg McDermott believes his absence played a role in the Cyclones' 14-18 finish.
ime there.
The Cyclones, three seasons removed from an NCAA tournament appearance, lost the core of a team that wasn't all that successful. Center Jiri Hubalek and forward Rahshon Clark have graduated and rising star Wesley Johnson bolted for Syracuse, leaving McDermott short-handed once again.
That's why Staiger, a 6-foot-5 shooting guard who had strong practices a year ago, will need to live up to advance billing for the Cyclones to have any hope of escaping the Big 12 cellar.
But Staiger likely won't be ready for the start of the season because of inflammation in his knee. He's expected to return to practice in mid-November.
``Lucca has a great understanding of the game,'' McDermott said. ``He can make shots and he makes others around him better.''
But McDermott is cautious about high expectations.
``Our fans need to be careful in what they expect out of him,'' he said. ``This is a young guy that's been through a lot, that's never played on this stage before, and he's become kind of a folk hero because our fans appreciate how much he loved Iowa State.
``There's some expectations there, simply because they want him to do well, because they want the kid to get a break.''
It only takes one glance at Iowa State's roster to understand why Cyclones fans are pinning so much hope on Staiger. There's not a single player - Staiger included - that's a known quantity.
g Brackins is undoubtedly Iowa State's top player entering the season. He played like a highly touted freshman last season, sprinkling in dazzling performances with the occasional disappearing act.
The Cyclones will need the 6-foot-10 Brackins to become a go-to-guy in the paint. He averaged 11.4 points and five rebounds while starting all 32 games.
``Be more consistent - it's just something that I really have to do,'' Brackins said.
Senior Alex Thompson, who has started only three games and averaged 1.9 points in a career that began at rival Iowa in 2004, will start at center. McDermott has brought in four new post players, led by junior college transfer Jamie Vanderbeken, to fill out the ranks.
There are three candidates to play point guard: senior Bryan Petersen, sophomore Diante Garrett and freshman Dominique Buckley.
Petersen started every game last season and shot an impressive 38.4 percent from 3-point range. Garrett wasn't much of a threat from the perimeter and he was turnover-prone as a freshman, but the coaching staff is high on his potential. The same goes for Buckley, who will get a chance to earn extended minutes.
Some would argue that Iowa State's hopes for a comeback season ended in May, when Johnson stunned McDermott by announcing his plans to transfer. Johnson's departure was a blow to McDermott's rebuilding efforts, which have stalled because of turbulent roster turnover.
In Staiger, Iowa State holds out hope for change.
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