After upsetting Big 12 leader Kansas at Hilton Coliseum on Saturday, the Magic is officially back at Hilton Coliseum.
However, now that the 24-hour celebratory rule has expired following that thrilling benchmark victory, it's time to talk about another kind of magic. That would be five, as in the magic number of wins I think Iowa State needs to have in order to assure itself an at-large berth in the NCAA Tournament come March.
As they begin what on paper looks to be a challenging February schedule, the Cyclones are on the fringes of the NCAA Tournament bubble. They're 58th in the RPI, which usually isn't good enough to land a nod from the Selection Committee. They have just one win over a ranked foe, and that came against the Jayhawks. Now, that's not entirely their fault. An effort was made to upgrade the schedule considerably during the offseason. Unfortunately, top programs like Xavier, Virginia, and Iowa are not having seasons that compare favorably with their reputations.
Still, the Cyclones have one advantage in their quest to return to March Madness—the strength of the Big 12 Conference.
Four of the top 20 teams in this week's RPI, and eight of the top 60, hail from the Big 12, and ISU has games remaining against all of those rivals. Winning several of those matchups will certainly improve ISU's mark in the RPI. That leads us back to that magical number five.
At 4-2 in the conference, ISU is certainly a player in the Big 12 race. Can they win it? Probably not, considering we're talking about a program that has lost 19 consecutive road games in league play. Nonetheless, a first division finish is possible, or at least a winning overall conference record. That would put the Cyclones at 9-7 in the league and 18-9 overall. Considering the overall strength of the league, there's no way that won't be enough to get ISU into the Tournament, regardless of what happens down in Dallas at the Big 12 Tournament.
Yes, even if that means ISU is undefeated at home and only manages one road win in the league. That's essentially the same resume that got Colorado an at-large bid last season, and it's essentially the same formula that got Johnny Orr at-large bids back in the day as well.
Now, that begs the question of whether or not they can do it?
Going undefeated at home is possible. There are four home games left: Oklahoma State (Feb. 7th), Texas (Feb. 14th), Kansas State (Feb. 25th), and Colorado (Mar. 3rd). Let's say, for the sake of argument, that ISU conservatively goes 3-1 in those games and finishes 15-1 at Hilton Coliseum for the season.
That would leave some work left to do to impress the Selection Committee, and that work would have to be accomplished by winning not one, but two road games. The road games are Oklahoma (Wednesday), Kansas State (Feb. 11th), Missouri (Feb. 18th), Kansas (Feb. 21st), Nebraska (Feb. 28th), and Texas Tech (Mar. 6th).
The best chances for success appear to be Kansas State, Nebraska, and Oklahoma. The young Sooners have been struggling for the past couple of weeks, are without the services of standout Kevin Bookout, and I'm guessing ISU will play inspired basketball after the Baylor debacle. It's tough to predict a win in Norman, but I've just got a funny feeling about this game.
Last week I said there's no way this team would go winless on the road again in the conference this season, mainly because the odds of going 0-for-25 are astronomical. Plus, I forecasted that elusive first road win will probably happen against a top program when we least expect it. Don't be surprised if that happens as soon as Wednesday.
Right now Wayne Morgan is the early frontrunner for Big 12 Coach of the Year, no doubt about it. And if ISU does finish 9-7 in the league or better, he should win the award in his rookie season.
Being around this team this season is fun. The air inside the program is fresh and the mood is relaxed. Guys are having fun playing the game. Morgan's nonchalant attitude filters down to his team, and it means that when he does get emotional the guys pay attention because they know he's got something important to say.
It's interesting to watch Morgan handle the media during the post-game. During our collective quest to find the ultimate, compelling storyline after every contest, Morgan is politely dismissive and doesn't take himself too seriously. He readily deflects praise to his assistants and his players.
It's also intriguing to watch the players interact with each other. For instance, on Saturday I watched Jackson Vroman walk up and playfully rub Jake Sullivan's baldhead during a television interview. That was noteworthy if for no other reasoning than the fact those two were clearly on opposite sides of the Larry Eustachy fiasco last spring.
Sullivan, as usual, was the first player to enter the interview room while freshman sensation Curtis Stinson was the last. Nonetheless, Sullivan waited for Stinson for almost 20 minutes after he was done talking to the media. As they left the interview room together they were encouraging one another and intimately discussing each other's exploits.
Sure, winning cures a lot of ills. But before you dismiss these anecdotes as trite and meaningless please take it from someone that's been to a few postgame settings all over the state the last few years. These guys are enjoying the season and each other, and that's not always the case in other places and other seasons.
Morgan deserves a lot of the credit for this, because it's truly reflective of his personality. He also brought Stinson and Will Blalock here. And he and assistant coach Bob Sundvold held this program together even while they weren't sure they still had jobs in Ames in the long run.
In a top-notch league like the Big 12, you can't rely on your Xs and Os acumen to carry you as a head coach. Right now, teams are having trouble adjusting to ISU's 2-3 zone defense. Yet after a while guys with the credentials of a Bill Self, Eddie Sutton, Rick Barnes, and Bob Knight will figure it out.
So to maintain a consistent program as a head coach you need to accomplish two things: recruit talent and inspire young men to play hard for you. So far, so good in that department for Captain Morgan.
The Sweet 16 seeds
After taking a few weeks off, we're back with our weekly forecast of the seeding trend for the upcoming NCAA Tournament. This week, this is how I would seed the top four teams in each region if I were on the Selection Committee:
(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)