Several weeks ago I took some heat on this site for predicting in this space that the Big 12 would finish 3-5 during the bowl season. Well, those of you that criticized me were right because the Big 12 didn't do that bad.
It was actually worse.
Overall, the conference didn't exactly make a big splash with the nation watching. Texas looked lifeless and soft against Washington State. Of course, the Cougars do wear red so maybe the Longhorns thought they were facing Oklahoma again. Speaking of Oklahoma, was that a Bob Stoops-coached team making those mental mistakes?
I really thought Oklahoma State would have too many weapons for Mississippi, but they're valiant comeback attempt fell short in the Cotton Bowl. Kansas doesn't belong in a bowl game with Nick Collison and Kirk Hinrich. Missouri proved in the Independence Bowl what we already suspected, that its defense was suspect. Kansas State proved selling your soul for victory doesn't always work, and now has its own No. 3 embroiled in a sexual assault investigation.
Heck, even in the two games the league won they were embarrassed.
Bo Pellini looked like a rank amateur with his antics in the Alamo Bowl. The last coach to wear his hat like that on the sidelines was Danny Ford, I think. His players took the cue from their interim coach, exchanging numerous personal fouls and smack talk with the overrated Spartans. I'm guessing we'll see Richie Incognito working for Vince McMahon someday.
And let's give mad props to Texas Tech Coach Mike Leach, for disgracefully running up the score on the United States Naval Academy in the Houston Bowl. Normally I have little sympathy for losers complaining about their opponents not calling off the dogs.
But let's make an exception for Leach, who called for a flea-flicker against the Midshipmen with a 31-14 lead. Heh, isn't that the same Navy that sacrifices itself around the world each and every day to keep Leach and all of us free? Apparently Leach isn't pro-defense. Isn't that a violation of the Patriot Act?
After what we've all just witnessed, let's retire the "Iowa State plays in the toughest conference in America" talk. It certainly doesn't make 2-10, 0-8 any less painful.
Basketball Stubs its Toe on the Road
The magic number for the Iowa State men's basketball program is 64.
No, unfortunately I'm not talking about that 64. You know, the field of 64 teams the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee honors with an invitation to the Big Dance each spring.
Instead, I'm referring to an uglier 64. And it's this 64 that may prevent the Cyclones from being a part of that other 64.
The 64 in question here represents the total number of turnovers the Cyclones have committed in their first three road games of the Wayne Morgan era. For those of you mathematically impaired, that equals an inexcusable 21 turnovers per game.
Against an average schedule of non-conference opponents thus far, ISU has committed 11 more turnovers than its opponents have. At first blush, one might be tempted to point out that such is the plight for teams that rely so heavily upon freshmen guards to handle the basketball most of the time, even if they're two terrifically talented players like Will Blalock and Curtis Stinson.
But the neophytes aren't the problem.
Blalock has been steady and sensational so far this season, and has a solid two-to-one assist-to-turnover ratio. Stinson could certainly use a better free throw stroke, but he's already the best scorer on the roster. Plus, he's the only other Cyclone that gets meaningful minutes with a surplus of dimes as opposed to giveaways.
It's the guys that should no better who need to better value the basketball. If you don't think turnovers can kill you, just ask Steve Alford. He's been battling the turnover bug in Iowa City for four years now.
It's not even close to time to push the panic button for a team that is 7-2 and still has a lot of upside. However, along with the turnovers, another ominous trend is emerging for ISU on the road.
That would be second half collapses.
Against Drake, the Cyclones went out of their way to blow a big lead and actually surrendered the advantage on the scoreboard briefly in the second half before coming back to pull away late.
Against Virginia, Iowa State had a seven-point lead with nine minutes to play. ISU was then held scoreless for the next two minutes while the Cavaliers went on a 19-5 run that decided the game.
Against San Diego State, ISU had a one-point lead with 14 minutes left in the game, only to watch the Aztecs go on a 19-5 run and take control of the game.
While losing two in a row is not acceptable, losing to these two teams is hardly disgraceful. Virginia plays in the best league in America and has been a power in basketball for the last three decades. Under the cheating eye of Steve Fisher, SDSU is a perennial postseason contender.
Nevertheless, Charlottesville and San Diego aren't exactly the intimidating atmospheres ISU is likely to find now that Big 12 Conference play is here in places like Lawrence, Norman, Columbia, or even Boulder.
Right now, the Cyclones look a little soft to me. Talented, for sure, but prone to lose their composure.
That may seem a little harsh for so early in the season, but after watching ISU lose its last 17 conference road games in a row there's not much time for patience. At some point the Cyclones are going to have to start winning road games like these again if it wants to return to the NCAA Tournament in the near future. And to do that it has to get tougher and start taking care of the basketball.
Then again, everyone wanted a return to Johnny Orr basketball. The legendary Coach Orr, who invented Hilton Magic, won only about a third of his road games during his riveting tenure in Ames.
So far in the dark jerseys the Cyclones are batting one for three.
Handicapping the Big 12 Race
Now that non-conference play is through for the most part, it's time to take a look at where things stand heading into Big 12 play.
First of all, the league is not quite as good as originally thought. Heading into the season, it was ranked as the top conference in America. It still ranks right up there, especially ahead of the dreadful Big Ten. But there's no question in my mind the ACC is the best league. In fact, the Final Four of the ACC Tournament in Greensboro could feature a better Final Four than the one coming up in San Antonio.
Still, it should be an exciting race, culminating in a wide-open Big 12 Tournament.
Here's how I breakdown the race.
One of these two will win it
I know Oklahoma lost a bunch to graduation. Well, I take that back. Since Kelvin Sampson cares as much about academics as Bob Huggins, it would be more accurate to say the Sooners had their great three-guard backcourt exhaust its eligibility.
Drew Lavender needs to improve his assist-to-turnover ratio, and as a team Oklahoma needs to shoot the ball better. But under Sampson you know the Sooners will do two things: play tough and play defense. Plus, in a wide-open race I think OU has the highest ceiling to improve because of its overall youthful athleticism. The key for the undefeated Sooners will be surviving a grueling stretch from January 11th-19th that includes a road game at #1 UCONN, Oklahoma State, and Texas Tech plus a home date with Missouri.
The Jayhawks spent a brief time at number one before a respectable loss at underrated Stanford and a perplexing defeat at the hands of the Nevada Wolfpack. Despite that setback, Kansas is Kansas and Bill Self is a quality coach. They have experience at point guard with Aaron Miles, a dominant athlete on the wing in Keith Langford, and one of the top post players in the conference in Wayne Simien.
Once they get used to the subtle differences in style between Self and his predecessor, they'll be near the top of the race all season. Plus, the early conference schedule provides ample opportunity to do that. Kansas could be 8-1 in the league heading into a key road date with Texas on February 23rd.
These three won't win it but have what it takes to win the conference tournament
If Texas had T.J. Ford back for another season, it would be the top-ranked team in America right now, although Royal Ivey has a better than two-to-one assist-to-turnover ratio. As it stands, the Longhorns still might feature the most athletic and skilled team in the league. They certainly have the deepest, with 10 players averaging double-digits minutes played per game.
However, in their two showcase non-conference outings – against Arizona and Duke – Texas was essentially run off the court. We'll know a little more about Rick Barnes' club after a home game with Wake Forest on the 13th. One advantage for the burnt orange is they don't have to travel to Kansas this season.
Missouri has as balanced and talented roster as exists in the country—on paper. Yet, for whatever reason, the cheating (allegedly) Tigers continue to prove that spending money on players doesn't always equate to victories. Quinn Snyder's squad always seems to play just at the level of its competition.
With the addition of a couple of high-octane transfers, one wonders if Mizzou has too many players now? One also has to wonder if Arthur Johnson, who thinks he's an NBA lottery pick, will sit idly by and lose minutes to two younger, more talented players. It wouldn't surprise me at all to see Missouri 9-7/8-8 in the regular season and then win the Big 12 Tournament.
Texas Tech has the best player in the league, Andre Emmett, and the best coach in the league in the eternally profane and cranky Bob Knight. The Red Raiders also have two guards who combine for a nearly five-to-one assist-to-turnover ratio. With the exception of consecutive road losses to Georgia Tech and SMU back in November, they've been pretty consistent so far this season.
If you're looking for a dark horse, look no further than Lubbock.
Plenty of questions, do they have the answers?
Nebraska is 9-1 so far this season. Still no word on whether or not athletic director Steve Pederson will elect to make a coaching change because nine wins just aren't good enough in Lincoln.
So just who have the Cornhuskers beaten? They do have some big notches on their bedpost with wins over Arizona State, Tennessee, and Minnesota. But neither of those name schools is up to their reputations this winter. Their lone loss was to a reloading Creighton squad. They only shoot 40 percent from the field as a team, 65 percent from the free throw line, and a paltry 27 percent from three-point range. The Big Red looks improved, but with those offensive numbers they're not poised to be the Big 12's Howard Dean this winter.
Oklahoma State is also 9-1, but the Cowboys' most impressive triumphs thus far are against a nondescript Colorado State club that did upset Purdue recently, and a rout of an SMU squad the defeated Texas Tech. Their only loss was to BYU, sans Danny Ainge and Shawn Bradley.
Eddie Sutton-coached teams always play defense and always have quality guards. The Cowboys seemingly fit that bill again this season. We'll learn a lot more about them next week when they visit the Red Raiders and host Oklahoma.
Colorado returned the bulk of last season's NCAA Tournament qualifier, but the biggest news the Buffaloes have made this winter came when reserve Chris Copeland had a bullet ricochet off a wall at a party and end up in his armpit earlier this month.
What's been mystifying to watch is Colorado struggle at home. Boulder is usually one of the toughest road trips in the Big 12, but the Buffaloes have lost their last two home games to Utah and Richmond. They also lost on the road at Pepperdine. David Harrison and Michel Morandais may be the top two NBA prospects in the conference, but so far that hasn't meant that much for Ricardo Patton and company.
Your Iowa State Cyclones belong in this category. Texas A&M, Kansas State, and Baylor belong in a category not worthy of mentioning.
My Final College Football Top 25 for 2003
One last look at how I would rank the top teams in college football this season. As an added bonus, I'm throwing in where I had them ranked in my preseason top 50 in parentheses after each team's final record.
1. LSU (13-1, 5th in my preseason poll)…The Trojans may have better personnel overall, but winning the rugged SEC and beating Oklahoma in the Sugar Bowl gives the Bayou Bengals the better overall resume.
2. USC (12-1, 10th in my preseason poll)…Physically dominated one of the most physically talented Wolverine teams ever to play in the Rose Bowl, and as a result they get half the national title. They're also the unquestioned preseason #1 for 2004.
3. Oklahoma (12-2, 3rd in my preseason poll)…The Sooners lost their mojo in Kansas City at the Big 12 title game. However, it was still a great season in Norman, considering the individual awards won and the amount of time they spent ranked No. 1.
4. Ohio State (11-2), 4th in my preseason poll)…"Upsetting" the Big 12 champion and winning 11 games isn't a bad follow-up to winning a national title. The Fiesta Bowl has become a home away from home for the Buckeyes.
5. Miami, Fla. (11-2, 7th in my preseason poll)…Despite losing star tailback Frank Gore and season-long inconsistency from Brock Berlin at quarterback, the stout Hurricane defense was strong enough for another top 5 finish.
6. Michigan (10-3, 2nd in my preseason poll)…Obviously the Wolverines are disappointed with how they finished in the Rose Bowl, but winning the outright Big Ten title and beating all three of your biggest rivals isn't too shabby.
8. Florida State (10-3, 18th in my preseason poll)…Bobby Bowden doesn't have long to wait for another crack at Miami, since his Seminoles open the season in Coral Gables. The ACC will no longer be an FSU cakewalk.
9. Iowa (10-3, 29th in my preseason poll)…Did Kirk Ferentz actually do a better job this season than last? Can the Hawkeyes keep Kirk Ferentz away from the NFL? Will ESPN's Trev Alberts actually stick his tongue in Kirk Ferentz's ear while begging him to coach his alma mater?
10. Miami, Oh. (13-1, NR in my preseason poll)…Could the Redhawks be the best MAC team ever? Considering the uncanny strength of the league this season, and the uncanny ability of quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, the answer could be in the affirmative.
11. Washington State (10-3, NR in my preseason poll)…Bill Doba did a masterful job taking over for Mike Price. Last season the Cougars won 10 games with an explosive offense. This season they did it with a tremendous defense.
12. Mississippi (10-3, 32nd in my preseason poll)…The last time Ole Miss won a major bowl game, Eli Manning's daddy was the quarterback. Now he'll likely join his older brother as a first overall pick in the NFL draft.
13. Boise State (13-1, NR in my preseason poll)…So much for the Broncos dropping off after a great 2002, huh? Who wouldn't love to see them fight it out with Miami of Ohio for the mid-major national championship?
14. Kansas State (11-4, 9th in my preseason poll)…Despicable is the best way to describe Bill Snyder's soulless decision to play Ell Roberson in the Fiesta Bowl, but have we come to expect anything less out of Manhattan?
15. Texas (10-3), 1st in my preseason poll)…How many Longhorn boosters does it take to call up Steve Spurrier? I'm guessing we're going to find out if Mack Brown doesn't make it to the BCS in '04.
16. Tennessee (10-3, 20th in my preseason poll)…They weren't that great on offense, and they were just alright on defense. Nevertheless, the Volunteers won 10 games against a rugged schedule.
17. Nebraska (10-3, 24th in my preseason poll)…Has a 10-win team with a proud tradition ever been a greater national laughing stock? Three times they've been left at the altar by coaching candidates. Heck, if you're going to try and hire someone from Arkansas, their last name better be Clinton, not Nutt.
18. Maryland (10-3, 12th in my preseason poll)…The Terrapins now have double-digit victories for three straight seasons for the first time in school history. Think that Ralph Friedgen can coach? Why isn't Nebraska calling him?
19. Utah (10-2, NR in my preseason poll)…The next big-time opening in the Big Ten may go to Urban Meyer. That's twice now he's directed big-time turnarounds at mid-major schools.
20. Purdue (9-4, 14th in my preseason poll)…For the second straight season, the Boilermakers can't win the close ones. As a result, for the second straight season Joe Tiller's talented team didn't quite measure up.
21. Minnesota (10-3, 23rd in my preseason poll)…Despite no facilities, no money, and no recruiting base Glenn Mason has made the Gophers a winner. 10-win seasons in Minneapolis are a rare feat.
22. Bowling Green (11-3, NR in my preseason poll)…Josh Harris had a great season and so did the Falcons. But Harris and his teammates were consistently overshadowed by Roethlisberger and conference rival Miami.
23. TCU (11-2, 30th in my preseason poll)…The last time Horned Frog football was this good the legendary Davey O'Brien was the quarterback. They'll be a factor next season as well.
24. Clemson (9-4, 38th in my preseason poll)…Hard to believe, but just two months ago Tommy Bowden was making moving van reservations. Then he beat Florida State and Tennessee to put the Tigers back on the college football map.
25. Oklahoma State (9-4, 19th in my preseason poll)…If Les Miles expects to take the Cowboys bowling for a third straight time next season he better improve that leaky defense, because he loses some playmakers on offense.
Extremely Early Look at the 2004 Preseason Top 5
Call me sick, obnoxious, or in need of a life. Here's a very early guess at which juniors go pro and which teams are the top contenders for the Orange Bowl.
1. USC…Nearly everyone is back, unless Kenechi Udeze leaves early for the NFL. The schedule is also extremely soft, so the Trojans better go undefeated or they'll likely get screwed in the BCS again.
2. Georgia…Even if Pollack goes pro the Dawgs will be contenders. Everyone else returns, and this season's tough road schedule becomes next season's home schedule.
3. Oklahoma…Jason White gets a sixth year, but Teddy Lehman, Derrick Strait, and Brandon Everage all graduate. All-American Tommie Harris may go early to the NFL with them. The schedule, however, is very championship-friendly.
4. LSU…The Tigers will likely lose standout WR Michael Clayton early to the NFL, but still have 15 starters returning. However, they face one of the toughest road stretches in college football history: at Auburn, at Georgia, and at Florida all in a row.
5. Wisconsin…Laugh now, but these past two years a team that had five losses the season prior made it to the BCS title game. The Badgers return 17 starters and the Big Ten will be way, way, way down next season. Could Barry Alvarez write a storybook swan song?
(Steve Deace can be heard on the radio in Central Iowa each weekday from 3-6 p.m. on 1460-KXNO, the flagship of the Cyclone Radio Network)