With the football team taking the week off, this week's column will focus on men's basketball, which makes its 2003-04 debut under new skipper Wayne Morgan tonight in an exhibition game at Hilton Coliseum.
In their final season under Larry Eustachy, the Cyclones finished 17-14 overall and just 4-12 in the Big 12 Conference. They enter this season with a 17-game road losing streak in the league. ISU has been left out of the NCAA Tournament two years running, and if they fail to make it into the Field of 64 this March it will mark the first time since 1984 the Cyclones have gone three straight years without an invite to the Big Dance.
How good can the Cyclones be under Morgan and his new staff this winter?
That's a tough question to answer right now, because we're not so sure who will even be on the team at this point. If seniors Jackson Vroman and Tim Barnes had done what was required of them as student-athletes/role models and were available for a full season, the overall depth and talent on this team could make it a dark horse for the NCAA Tournament.
However, we're now awaiting word on Vroman's status after a second bust this year and we're waiting to see if Barnes can perform well enough academically to earn back his eligibility. Personally, based on what I'm hearing, I think it's 50-50 that we'll see Barnes back for the second semester. Barring another legal setback, it's almost a lock we'll see Vroman back at some point this season.
A frontcourt of Vroman, incoming JUCO All-American Damion Staple, improved junior Jared Homan, and lanky, athletic freshman Reggie George would provide a solid rotation and versatility. Vroman and George run the court exceedingly well and could flourish in Coach Morgan's preferred up-tempo style. Homan looks like he may have even slept in the weight room during the summer, and his penchant for physical play provides him a nice niche. Staple is a bit of an unknown, but his credentials speak for themselves. George may be the most physically gifted of the bunch; he just needs time for his body to mature.
If Barnes returns, the backcourt could be among the best in the league. The only man who was as happy as Morgan when Curtis Stinson and Will Blalock decided to honor their commitments to ISU last spring was Jake Sullivan. Now as a senior he'll be freed up to do what he does best: shoot the lights out from the perimeter. Stinson and Blalock are better pure point guards than Barnes, and their pass-first mentality will make their teammates better. If Barnes is able to return, look for him to play more of a two-guard role. He was an excellent three-point shooter in junior college, but last season his shot was inconsistent while he struggled to become a true point guard. Now all he'll be asked to do is score.
Assuming all of the pieces are in place, that's a pretty solid eight-man rotation. In fact, I think it's a markedly more talented team than ISU had last season when it still found a way to advance past the first round of the postseason NIT.
However, it could very well be the play of a quiet, unassuming senior who has demonstrated flashes of potential that ultimately decides what kind of basketball season ISU has.
Enter Marcus Jefferson.
Jefferson is the only true swing player on the ISU roster, thanks to the transfer of Adam Haluska. Jefferson played the best basketball of his career down the stretch last season, and he'll need to sustain that for three months if the Cyclones are to be successful.
There's an abundance of superb wing talent in the Big 12 like Missouri's Rickey Paulding, Keith Langford of Kansas, Texas' Brandon Mouton, Michael Morandais at Colorado, Texas A&M's Antoine Wright, and Andre Emmett at Texas Tech.
You'll probably see Morgan try to counteract any matchup problems on the wing by deploying a three-guard lineup at times in order to put more quickness on the floor. However, that still doesn't hide the need for a slasher in today's college game, and Jefferson will need to be that for the Cyclones.
Now to the schedule.
Assuming there is no Barnes or Vroman for the first semester, ISU would play its first five games with a fairly young lineup.
Before you categorize the opener against Mercer as a cupcake, keep in mind the Bears were one of the most improved teams in the nation last season. They improved from 6-23 to 23-6 and won the Atlantic Sun Conference regular season title. They also return their leading scorer.
Northern Iowa could be the most improved team in the Missouri Valley Conference. The Panthers return all five starters and you know they would just love to notch a win at Hilton.
The next three games are automatics before a tough four game stretch at: Drake – where the Cyclones almost never win lately – Xavier at home, Virginia and San Diego State. Thus, a 5-0 start is imperative heading into that swing. The December 20th visit to the Knapp Center is when I'm projecting that Vroman and Barnes rejoin the lineup. ISU's young backcourt should have an interesting evening against Dr. Tom Davis' aggressive press defense.
Considering the tumult in the roster and the youth in the backcourt, a 9-0 record heading into conference play is not realistic. But the Cyclones probably can't afford to be worse than 6-3 if they want to have any realistic hopes of a winning season.
January begins with four of the first games of the month in Ames. Upsetting a very talented Missouri team in the Big 12 opener is a tall order, but beating Nebraska, Northern Colorado, and improved Iowa is possible. A road game at Colorado is a likely loss, but the Cyclones should win their next two at Baylor and at home against Texas A&M.
That leaves ISU 11-4 heading into what I think is the swing game of the season: a visit from Kansas on January 31st. If the Cyclones can pull off the upset they'll have some momentum heading into a rugged February. If they lose, then they'll probably have to win the conference tournament to get an NCAA Tournament bid.
Best case scenario: the Cyclones are 12-4 heading to Norman to take on Oklahoma. Chalk up a loss there. Oklahoma State is deep and athletic, and they're a tough matchup for ISU even in Ames. There's another loss. The Cyclones always struggle in Manhattan, so that's three straight defeats courtesy of Kansas State. ISU isn't going to beat Texas anywhere, let alone Ames. Consecutive road games at Columbia and Lawrence continue the slide.
At 12-10 heading into the final four games, the Cyclones regroup to beat K-State at home, Nebraska on the road, and upset Colorado at Hilton. The regular season ends with a loss in Lubbock to Texas Tech.
ISU finishes the regular season 16-11 overall and 7-9 in the Big 12 in the first year of the Morgan era. Not a great debut, but I think it's one the majority of Cyclone Nation would be happy with. That would make Morgan just the second rookie ISU coach since 1960 to finish with a winning record.
My weekly ranking of the top teams in college football.
- Oklahoma (9-0)… Sooners sent a message that nothing will get in their way of a national title this season by burying Oklahoma State. Barring a serious injury at quarterback, these guys aren't going to lose. Here's a scary thought: Oklahoma has been without preseason All-American linebacker Lance Mitchell almost the entire season.
- Southern California (8-1)… The Trojans are heavy favorites to win out and play in the Sugar Bowl after dismantling Washington State, the only team out west capable of defeating them. This team could win a national title this season and might actually be better in 2004.
- LSU (8-1)… Tigers look like the best team in the SEC, but after a bye this week they get back-to-back road games at Alabama and West Division leader Mississippi.
- Virginia Tech (7-1)… Gets extra credit for taking Miami apart at the seams, let alone just pulling the upset. However, the Hokies are now on upset alert at Big East rival Pittsburgh this week.
- Miami, Fla. (7-1)… The Hurricanes don't have much time to hang their heads and regroup because a Tennessee squad that remembers last year's woodshed beating in Knoxville is coming to town this week.
- Florida State (8-1)… I don't care how bad Notre Dame is, routing the Fighting Irish, 37-0, in South Bend is pretty darned impressive. But the Seminoles don't deserve to be ranked ahead of a Miami team that handled them easily a few weeks ago.
- Ohio State (8-1)… The defending national champs continue to be effective, and unimpressive. Their final three games are Michigan State, Purdue, and at Michigan so if the Buckeyes are to win another Big Ten title they will certainly have to earn it the hard way.
- Michigan (8-2)… The Wolverines have now defeated the first place team in its league the past two weeks. If you want to be the man, you have to beat the man. Now Michigan is the man in the Big Ten.
- Iowa (7-2)… Because of their fan following and strong strength of schedule, the Hawkeyes will likely land somewhere in the BCS again if they win out. But that will be tough to do with road games at Purdue and Wisconsin remaining.
- Georgia (7-2)… Jacksonville is the Dawgs' Waterloo, because they just can't seem to beat Florida. Georgia's offense has been anemic for the past month.
- Texas (7-2)… Suddenly, after demolishing overrated Nebraska and this week's carnage in the polls, the Longhorns are in the thick of the hunt for an at-large berth in the BCS.
- Washington State (7-2)… The Cougars were exposed by USC as not worthy of last week's lofty No. 6 ranking. Nonetheless, they're still a solid club that will end up in a quality bowl game.
- Mississippi (7-2)… Nobody is talking about the Rebels, but quietly they're 5-0 in the SEC and Eli Manning is back in the Heisman hunt. This week's road game at Auburn will provide a stern test.
- Texas Christian (8-0)… The undefeated Horned Frogs were off this week, and just sat back and watched several teams ahead of them in the polls lose. Now they're on upset alert against underrated Louisville.
- Bowling Green (7-1)… The Falcons ambushed Northern Illinois at home two weeks ago to capture the national spotlight, now they have to be wary the same thing doesn't happen to them this week at Miami of Ohio.
- Michigan State (7-2)… MSU still has a shot at a share of the Big Ten title, but consecutive road games at Ohio State and Purdue will likely drop them to a second-tier bowl game in Texas.
- Purdue (7-2)… Boilermakers are another Big Ten team with a shot at the conference title and a January bowl game. The next two weeks against Iowa and at Ohio State will tell their tale.
- Tennessee (6-2)… Another sloppy outing for the Volunteers, who just can't seem to play a complete game this season, against lowly Duke. They'll need to be consistent and at their best for the road trip to Miami this week.
- Florida (6-3)… The Gators beat Georgia – again – and thus forced a possible vote by SEC athletic directors to decide who represents the East Division in the conference title game. This team will be a force in 2004.
- Nebraska (7-2)… The Big Red is seeing red after just getting shellacked physically at Texas. Nebraska still has a great shot at the Big 12's North Division title, but will need a sweep of the state of Kansas the next two weeks.
- Oklahoma State (7-2)… The Cowboys came into the Bedlam game cocky and confident, and then got obliterated. It will be interesting to see how they mentally bounce back for this week's home against resurgent Texas.
- Northern Illinois (8-1)… Huskies desperately need Bowling Green to lose this week, otherwise they could get shut out of the MAC title race.
- Missouri (6-2)… Nebraska's loss opens the door for the Tigers, who now control their own destiny in the Big 12 North Division. However, they'll need to win road games against Colorado and Kansas State in order to make it to their first Big 12 title game.
- Pittsburgh (6-2)… Avoided the letdown by gutting out a road-win against steady Boston College. That gives the Panthers a chance to play for a berth in the BCS and the last Big East title that means anything because they still get Virginia Tech and Miami at home.
- Miami, Ohio (7-1)… For the second time this season the MAC gets a conference game featuring a pair of ranked foes. Now it's the Redhawks' turn to steal the national acclaim from Bowling Green.
My Heisman Ballot
The five top candidates for college football's most prestigious award. The top two slots are fairly concrete, but the other three finalists change from week-to-week.
- Jason White (QB-Oklahoma)… The only way he doesn't win the award now is if the Sooners lose a game or – Heaven forbid – he gets hurt again.
- Larry Fitzgerald (WR-Pittsburgh)— Like we said over a month ago, he's the most unstoppable player in America.
- Eli Manning (QB-Mississippi)— Has the Rebels yelling SEC title, and he gets a national stage this week courtesy of CBS.
- Matt Leinart (QB-USC)— Sophomores don't win the trophy, but his numbers are better than Carson Palmer's were at this time a year ago.
- Chris Perry (RB-Michigan)— The country saw him carry – literally – the Michigan team on his back and he again leads the nation in rushing.
I'll be gone most of this week. I'm taking my mother to the Mayo Clinic for a serious procedure, so any prayers any of you out there might have time for would be greatly appreciated. I'll have a laptop with me that will allow me to keep up with things as time permits, but if I'm a little slow responding back to you via e-mail or the message board please be patient with me the next few days. Otherwise, Bill will be around to answer any queries you might have.
Thanks in advance.
(Steve Deace can be heard on the radio each Monday-Friday in Central Iowa from 3-6 p.m. on 1460-KXNO, the flagship of the Cyclone Radio Network)