AP Sports Writer
---- — AMES, Iowa (AP) — Iowa State lost four of its top six scorers from last season and was still picked to finish fourth in the Big 12.
It looks like the rest of the league is through doubting Fred Hoiberg and the Cyclones.
Despite yet another major overhaul of its roster, Iowa State is expected to compete for its third straight NCAA tournament berth in 2013-14.
The Cyclones bring back senior forward Melvin Ejim, a preseason first-team All-Big 12 selection, and emerging sophomore Georges Niang. Transfer DeAndre Kane will take over at point guard after averaging 15 points a game last season at Marshall, and guards Monte Morris and Matt Thomas should contribute immediately as freshmen.
Though being slotted fourth in the preseason Big 12 poll doesn't sound terribly lofty, it's actually the highest Iowa State has been picked in 13 years.
"I think our guys feel a little bit of respect with being picked in the top half of our league. Will we live up to that? I don't know yet. Hopefully, we'll continue to evolve and come together," Hoiberg said.
The Cyclones do have plenty of questions to answer, though — and very little time to do so.
They'll be counting on unproven junior college transfer Daniel Edozie for depth behind center Percy Gibson and fellow juco transfer K.J. Bluford for scoring off the bench. It's also unclear what the Cyclones have in sophomore guards Naz Long and Sherron Dorsey-Walker.
"I'm still trying to figure out what exactly we are as a group. What will our identity be? Just because we have so many new people on this roster, so many new faces. But I like what I've seen," Hoiberg said.
Iowa State's non-conference schedule is its toughest in recent memory. The Cyclones host national runner-up Michigan on Nov. 17 and face BYU, Auburn, Northern Iowa, Iowa and George Mason before Christmas.
Here are five keys for Iowa State as it looks for another trip to the NCAA tournament.
MEL'S TEAM: Ejim was an all-purpose weapon for Iowa State a year ago, averaging 11.3 points and a league-high 9.3 rebounds. But he's Iowa State's best returning player, and as such his role should expand on both ends of the floor. "He's really added to his game. Shooting the heck out of the ball right now and making plays off the dribble," Hoiberg said.
GEORGES TIME: Though Niang was left off the preseason All-Big 12 team, he could easily wind up as one of the league's best players. The 6-foot-7 Niang scored in double figures in 10 of Iowa State's last 12 games and had 19 points in a rout of Notre Dame in the NCAA tournament. Niang can score from everywhere on the floor — shooting 51.5 percent overall and 39.2 percent on 3s a year ago — and is now in much better shape, according to Hoiberg.
BACKCOURT JUMBLE: Kane will likely play at least 30 minutes a game. But the rest of the playing time for the guards is up in the air. Morris will likely start out as the backup point guard and Thomas could end up as the starter at shooting guard. But Long, Dorsey-Walker and Bluford will also be in the mix as Iowa State looks to replace Korie Lucious, Chris Babb and Tyrus McGee. "I feel like it's going to be very competitive," Bluford said.
LOOKING FOR 3s: Iowa State led the nation with 9.9 made 3s a game last season, but the majority of the players that made them have moved on. Still, the Cyclones should be a threat from 20 feet out with the likes of Bluford, who had 113 3s last season in junior college, and the sharp-shooting Thomas. He was considered one of the best prep shooters in the country last season.
THE NEXT EJIM: Iowa State will lose Ejim after the season, but his replacement is already on campus. Northern Illinois transfer Abdel Nader can practice with the Cyclones, but he won't be eligible until next season. Nader, a 6-foot-6 forward, averaged 13.1 points and 5.6 rebounds a game for the Huskies last season.
Follow Luke Meredith on Twitter: www.twitter.com/LukeMeredithAP