How can I be so sure? Good question, I suppose. But, a question that I would throw right back is… How can you NOT be optimistic? You've got to believe…right? (I'm pretty sure this isn't just the Cub fan in me.)
Yes, I'm an optimist by nature. When it comes to my favorite teams, I almost always see the glass as half full. I'll admit that. But, college basketball is an area that I believe I can think with my head at least as much as my heart…and right now, both are telling me that Iowa State is headed to the NCAAs.
If it happens, consider how remarkable that is for a minute. Eight months ago, the Cyclone program was…well...beyond nowhere. Maybe even further off the radar screen than that. Somehow, Coach Wayne Morgan & Company have managed to keep everything together this season and give ISU fans a heckuva ride so far. And I'm telling you…the best is yet to come.
Right now, Iowa State is 13-4 overall with a 4-2 mark in the Big 12. For my money, that's good enough to get the Cyclones into the tournament if the invites were sent out today. However, looking at ESPN.com, I see that "bracketology" guru Joe Lunardi does NOT have Iowa State in the Big Dance at this point. Hmmm. Why not? Maybe it's the fact that the Cyclones have only beaten one ranked team (Kansas). Maybe it's the road losing streak in the Big 12. Maybe it's the hangover from all the rotten publicity of last spring. Who knows?
The teams that Lunardi DOES have in the tourney right now include: Vanderbilt (14-4), Charlotte (13-5), Richmond (12-8), Maryland (11-7), Hawaii (15-4), Memphis (14-4), Alabama (11-7) and Indiana (11-7).
Uhhh….helllllooooooo. Earth to Joe. Come in, Joe. Oh, wait a minute. There we go. There's another category called "next four out" that includes: Colorado, Nevada, Iowa State and Michigan. So, in other words, Lunardi has the Cyclones not exactly ON the bubble right now…but at least he thinks they can see the bubble from where they are. And that's nice, I suppose.
But, I find it hard to believe that teams like Richmond (12-8 record, including 1-6 against the Top 50), Vanderbilt (3-4 record in the SEC), Maryland (2-5 mark in the ACC and 3-6 vs. the Top 50) and Indiana (4-7 vs. Top 100) are really THAT far out in front of Iowa State at this point.
Of course, all of this is speculation, but it's great fun to debate for the next six weeks until Selection Sunday. Who should make it? Who shouldn't? And what about seeding? Ah yes, it's nice to be concerned about those types of issues again in February after a two-year hiatus in Ames. It definitely adds a lot of spice to the college basketball season for fans in Iowa.
Here's how I see the rest of the regular season playing out for ISU…
2/4 at Oklahoma (loss)
2/7 Oklahoma State (WIN)
2/11 at Kansas State (WIN)
2/14 Texas (WIN)
2/18 at Missouri (loss)
2/21 at Kansas (loss)
2/25 Kansas State (WIN)
2/28 at Nebraska (loss)
3/2 Colorado (WIN)
3/6 at Texas Tech (loss)
That will give the Cyclones a 5-5 mark in the final 10 regular-season games, which would give them an 18-9 overall record, including a 9-7 mark in the Big 12. These numbers alone will get ISU an invitation to the NCAA Tourney. Add to those results a 1-1 showing in the league tournament and you've got a 19-10 team with a winning record in the Big 12…and there's NO WAY the Selection Committee could ignore those credentials.
Optimisic? Maybe. But considering how far this program has progressed since last summer, I don't think it's far-fetched at all.
More positive thoughts…
OK, since I'm on a roll right now with everything that's RIGHT about the Iowa State men's basketball program, here are a few more thoughts to ponder…
If Iowa State finishes 9-7 in the Big 12, will Coach Morgan receive many Big 12 Coach of the Year votes? I would have to think so. Simply rewind to last May and the feeling of despair around this program…then fast forward to an accomplishment like a winning mark in the Big 12 in Year One of the "Morgan Era." Pretty impressive stuff.
Has any big man in the Midwest improved more in the last two seasons than Jared Homan? The Remsen native is just a beast in the paint…scoring, rebounding, blocking shots and giving ISU an intimidating, physical presence.
If Homan continues to develop at this pace for the next year, could he become a legitimate NBA prospect? I'm not asking if he'll be drafted in the 2005 NBA Draft…I'm just wondering if he could improve to the point of being able to fight for a roster spot.
Could Jackson Vroman battle for an NBA roster spot next fall? With his height, athletic ability, speed, quickness and never-ending motor, couldn't he have at least a chance to make someone's roster?
The two key guys to the rest of this season could be Marcus Jefferson and Damion Staple. I'm very encouraged by Staple's improvements in performance and confidence in the last two weeks. Iowa State NEEDS Staple to be able to provide a solid front-court spark when he gets a chance to play. Jefferson should be able to provide plenty of energy off the bench as his ISU career draws to a close, as well.
(Marty Gallagher founded the popular web site IowaSportsOpinions.com. You can e-mail him at Marty@IowaSportsOpinions.com.)