This column contains honest post Iowa-Iowa State opinion in lieu of the pro-ISU spin some of you may think you're entitled to from me just because I publish Cyclone Nation. Blind-loyalist reader discretion is advised.
Iowa State's baffling 54-53 NIT first round loss to Iowa before a rabid, sellout crowd at Hilton Coliseum on Friday night is a sour note to end the season on.
I guess everybody inside Cyclone Nation was asking for that super-sized slice of humble pie from an Iowa basketball team that had won just five of its last 15 games coming into the contest against – gasp! – Big Ten competition.
In the months, weeks, and days leading up to the rare rematch there was to wit:
- Larry Eustachy's oft-repeated one-liners throughout the winter about there not being any Penn States or Northwesterns in his league.
- Iowa State blowing out seemingly much tougher Big 12 rivals like Missouri and Colorado while the Hawkeyes notched "impressive" wins over Penn State and Northwestern.
- Pre-game silence from our counterparts in the Hawkeye Nation, who refrained from their traditional false bravado beforehand because they, too, didn't honestly expect to beat the Cyclones at Hilton and knew their team hadn't beaten anyone of significance of late.
- My cocksure pronouncements on the air last week that Iowa State would win this game "going away" leading to the inevitable Deace kiss of death yet again.
This was a bad loss for the Cyclones. The only positive is the resounding level of affection Iowa State fans showered their basketball program with via an extremely impressive show of support in the NIT.
(Note to ISU schedule-maker: good competition + affordable prices = good crowds)
The Cyclones should not have lost this game. They had already beaten Iowa once before in Iowa City when the Hawkeyes were playing well early in the season. They had clearly played better competition in the Big 12 than Iowa had in the Big Ten. They were playing better down the stretch. They were playing at home.
Meanwhile, the Hawkeyes were hardly the good ship lollipop.
Iowa was one of the Big Ten's worst three-point shooting teams. Iowa was one of the Big Ten's worst assist-to-turnover teams. Jared Reiner's uncle was writing letters to the editor demanding a public apology for Alford's remarks about his nephew's performance following Iowa's rare early exit from the Big Ten Tournament. Iowa had lobbied intensely to play the game at Carver-Hawkeye Arena, and then barely made an effort to get Friday night's game on television when they didn't succeed. And just 2,761 fans showed up for Iowa's opening round win over a Valparaiso team that lost its last game against something called Indiana University at Purdue University of Indianapolis.
But a funny thing happened on Friday night. Iowa played – at least according to how it sounded on the radio – with its heart on its sleeves as if it had nothing to lose. Iowa State played like it could barely breathe from underneath its uniforms. Starting backcourt Jake Sullivan and Tim Barnes combined to shoot 4-for-26 from the field, while Jackson Vroman missed two free throws – one being an air ball – which could've given the lead back to ISU in the final seconds.
Iowa's ultra-quick Chauncey Leslie said it best to the Iowa City Press-Citizen afterwards: "We beat them, and they've got to clean out their lockers."
So now that those lockers have been emptied, and Eustachy is headed for some cross-country recruiting in the old RV, it's time to ask a serious question.
Is Iowa State men's basketball poised to return to prominence next season?
A few weeks ago, I wrote that I wanted to see three signs of progress from the Cyclones before I officially jumped back on the bandwagon:
- Sustain a Big 12 winning streak. Check.
- Finish with more conference wins than the previous season. Check.
- Win a conference road game. Whatever the opposite of check is, we'll go with that.
I know Meatloaf once sang "Two out of three ain't bad" but he never finished a season with a loss to Iowa on his home floor.
Nonetheless, I still see reasons for guarded optimism about a return to the NCAA Tournament next season.
First of all, the Big 12 is not going to be as good next season. Should T.J. Ford return for his junior season, Texas could be a preseason top five team. Missouri, which can play awfully erratic at times, figures to be a preseason top 10 team if Arthur Johnson and Ricky Paulding honor their pledges to return for their senior seasons. Other than that, the race should be fairly open with traditional powers Kansas and Oklahoma looking to replace some outstanding senior talent and leadership.
Second, the Cyclones will start four seniors: Barnes, Sullivan, Vroman, and Marcus Jefferson.
Fourth, I think Eustachy has assembled a much more "stable" recruiting class. Whether this was a conscious effort or not to clean up an area that has been a mess the past two years, nobody I know is anticipating any announcements about guys like Ricky Morgan, Chris Alexander, and Jerome Harper.
Finally, and this one is a little abstract, but the odds have to even out that ISU will get some breaks next season and experience a little more tranquility. Not many bounces went the Cyclones way this winter. Plus, there were some emotional roller coasters as well, whether it was the Randy Brown saga, the serious illness of Jefferson's mother, and the untimely death of the legendary Pete Taylor.
Just one event like that can destabilize a team, let alone having all three occur in the same season.
Considering all these factors, and the team's five-game improvement over last season in the win column, it's not overly gracious to describe the season as moderately successful. However, I don't think 17-14 overall and 5-11 in the Big 12 is something ISU fans should consistently settle for.
The Missing Link?
One thing is still missing from the Iowa State men's basketball program: a superstar. There simply isn't a player in the program who can consistently exert his will over a game with his athleticism. Perhaps this is why so much patience was exercised with Harper?
Sullivan is a gutsy player, a great shooter, and one of my favorites but he is not a guy capable of carrying a team in my opinion. Barnes is a terrific athlete, but too inconsistent shooting the basketball to impose his will on a game. Vroman is the closest thing the Cyclones have to that player, but he's more Reggie Evans than Marcus Fizer.
Adam Haluska has that kind of ability, but something is missing from his arsenal and I'm afraid it's internal. He needs to rediscover his confidence because he's too good of an athlete just to wander aimlessly around the three-point line.
The newcomers are each solid players who could be three or four-year players that development nicely and provide stability, but there isn't necessarily an instant difference-maker in the group according to the recruiting gurus.
To me, ISU looks to have a fine collection of standout role players returning, but I don't necessarily see any standouts.
In the spring a young man's fancy turns to college football
Spring football practice at ISU begins Wednesday, and you can rest assured that Cyclone Nation will provide the most complete and comprehensive coverage you'll find anywhere.
Practices are held each Monday, Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday right up until the spring football game on April 19th at Jack Trice Stadium.
Make sure to check out our premium message board each day for tidbits from our very own Bill Seals, who plans on attending each of the 15 practices this spring, as well as the slew of spring practice features and notebooks he'll be filing for our readers.
(Steve Deace can be heard every Monday through Friday on the radio in Central Iowa from 4-7 p.m. on 1460-KXNO, the flagship of the Cyclone Radio Network)