Make no mistake about it, the season stands at a crossroads this week for the Iowa State men's basketball program.
The past seven days have been the most trying of Wayne Morgan's virgin voyage thus far. First, the Cyclones followed up a benchmark win over Kansas by absolutely laying an egg at Oklahoma for their 20th consecutive Big 12 loss on the road. Losing in Norman is no crime, and not even the most myopic fans counted that game in the win column before the season began. However, not competing is a cardinal sin for any team, and it's one ISU certainly committed against the Sooners.
Following that loss came the next batch of bad news.
Senior captain Marcus Jefferson failed to accompany the team to the Oklahoma game and didn't show for practice all week, either. On Friday, a statement was released through Coach Morgan's office that basically said Jefferson had indefinitely left the program to deal with some personal issues. Jefferson's life hasn't been the same since his mother suddenly past away from cancer last May, plus he was having trouble dealing with his dwindling playing time. In his last game against the Jayhawks he started, but failed to play in the second half while his teammates rallied for an inspirational win.
Jefferson clearly hadn't statistically produced the type of final season he was hoping for. Nonetheless, for an ISU team already thin on the bench and thin on leadership his loss – if it's permanent – will have an adverse affect. The jury is still out on whether or not he returns, but as far as ISU is concerned the door is open for him to do so.
Finally, proving yet again that these things do indeed come in threes, was Saturday's blowout loss at home to Oklahoma State. It was the first loss at Hilton Coliseum for ISU this season, and the Cowboys just out-classed the Cyclones in all facets of the game. For my money, Eddie Sutton has the best team in the Big 12. Unfortunately, injury was added to insult with Jared Homan rolling his ankle again and Curtis Stinson injuring his groin area late in the contest.
Homan I'm not too worried about, because frankly he's rolled that ankle so many times now that it's probably just numb from scar tissue. But, as all we men know, having a sore groin can be a severe distraction.
Now the road beckons a Cyclone team whose psyche has to be a little fractured after the week they've just had. Just seven days ago we were all thinking about March Madness and Coach Morgan was openly discussing his team competing for the Big 12 title.
Seven days later the season is on the brink, at least as far as those NCAA Tournament hopes are concerned. At the beginning of the season, given the adversity this program faced in the offseason and the questions we had about the new coaching staff, we all would've taken a winning record and an NIT berth for a team pegged 10th in the league by the preseason punditry. But expectations have a way of being raised with surprising, early success.
Thus, "settling" for another NIT after a 13-4 start and wins over bitter rivals Iowa and Kansas doesn't have the luster it had four months ago. That's just not true for the fans, by the way. I'm sure the players and coaches feel the same, even if they don't say it publicly.
Last week in this space, we wrote about five being the magic number of wins ISU needed down the stretch to secure an at-large berth in the Field of 64/65. That hasn't changed despite the two losses last week, just the prospects for accomplishing that feat have slightly dimmed.
Barring at least two wins in the Big 12 Tournament next month, given the schedule that remains, the odds are against the Cyclones getting the call on Selection Sunday if they don't win the two games on tap this week. That means ISU will first need to find sanctuary from their first real taste of adversity where it least feels safe—on the road.
Kansas State in Manhattan is as good a place as any to finally get rid of those road demons that have been victimizing Cyclone Nation for nearly three years. The Wildcats were just 132nd in the RPI last week, and are 2-6 in league play. This is a very winnable road game, but then again so was Baylor.
I don't think it can be underestimated what a win on the road in the league would do for the morale of this program. Right now the Cyclones view away games the same way the French view the Germans. It takes courage and toughness to win on the road, and that always has more to do with you than it does with the opponent you're facing. Wednesday night's game is one ISU has to have, no matter how ugly it is.
On Saturday the Cyclones get a chance to work a little Hilton Magic again when nationally ranked Texas comes to Ames. The Longhorns are loaded again off last year's Final Four run, but they lack the one great difference-maker T.J. Ford gave them last season. It should be rocking inside the Coliseum, because ISU will use the Valentine's Day game to honor all-time greats like Don Smith, Gary Thompson, Jeff Hornacek, Jeff Grayer, and Pete Taylor. Emotion shouldn't be a problem. This is the kind of win that would boost ISU's RPI and profile for the Selection Committee as well.
The bottom line is we'll know what kind of mettle the Cyclones have by the time I write the next Monday Musings.
Football Recruiting Rankings
Some of you are a little upset that Josh Clark, who covers Big 12 recruiting for TheInsiders, which is our parent network, chose to rank Dan McCarney's 2004 football recruiting class 11th in the Big 12 Conference.
Me, I could care less. Hey, somebody has to be ranked 11th, so why not us? It's better than 12th, right?
Seriously though, I have never understood the fascination with recruiting rankings. They should be taken with a grain – no, make that a pound – of salt, no matter who the author is, and they should never be taken literally. Mainly, they're just fodder for radio talk shows or Internet message boards.
Warning: the following has become an annual rant of mine, so if you've heard it before feel free to skip ahead. J
Here's how recruiting rankings work. Basically every one, regardless of name or network affiliation, agrees on whom the top 200-250 players in the country are. They may rank them a little differently, but year in and year out the majority of those players rated four or five star prospects turn out to be pretty good.
Beyond the upper echelon, however, it's more of a crapshoot than balancing the Federal budget. How in the world can Tom Lemming, Allen Wallace, Jeremy Crabtree, Bobby Burton, Jamie Newberg, Josh Clark, or Corky Romano distinguish between the 35th-best right guard and the 71st best? Do any of you honestly believe any of the aforementioned experts have seen, or even heard, of all of these guys?
The opinions of recruiting gurus when it comes to the top players, or players in their respective geographic regions, are usually pretty solid. However, where were all these guys when Seneca Wallace came to town? How many of them do you think called up Mac and said "you know, I think that scrawny Lane Danielsen kid could turn out to break every receiving record at your school."
Over in Iowa City, Kirk Ferentz has been kicking the Big Ten around the last two years with guys that weren't exactly Parade All-Americans. Nebraska won three national titles in the 1990s with largely unheralded recruits. How does that happen? Well, the one thing recruiting gurus can't forecast is what happens to these young studs once they arrive on campus.
If recruiting is the lifeblood of every program, then player development is the plasma. If you recruit knuckleheads, don't take strength and conditioning seriously, and have weak links on your coaching staff then you can throw out those recruiting rankings. Just ask Notre Dame.
So feel free to debate the merits of whether or not ISU's class should be eighth or 11th. Feel free to rip Josh Clark as a Hawkeye wolf in a Big 12 analyst sheep's clothing. It's fun stuff to read and that's what our forums are for after all.
As for me, I'll just sit back, judge the results out on the gridiron, and report back in a couple of years with the final verdict.
Signing Day Salute
I just wanted to take a moment to thank Bill Seals, CI Steve Waters, and all of our sources up in Ames for a job well done on Signing Day last week.
I had the pleasure of moderating a four-hour live, interactive chat throughout the festivities that kept our subscribers abreast of what was going on inside the football offices. Subscribers in the chat knew who had officially signed and when, and they were kept updated on the peculiar goings-on while ISU tried to put the finishing touches on its incoming class.
Bill was incredible working the phones all morning long, and then he arrived two hours early for the press conference so that he could put his ear to the ground up at the Jacobson Building for the latest. Plus, he had to put up with me bugging him on the phone for information every 10 minutes! CI Steve helped Bill cover the press conference, and gather information for the player bios you'll see in our recruiting issue in next month's magazine. And then there's our sources, who trust us to give you the information you want and give it to you first. They're the real stars of this operation. We're just the messengers.
Finally, you guys in the chat were great as well with your enthusiasm and support. Given the traffic we had in there, I'm guessing worker productivity really suffered last Wednesday.
For the next three days, Bill and I may be a little scarce on the website as we assemble the 2004 football recruiting issue for CN. Thanks in advance for your patience. Trust us, this issue will be even better than last year's. That leads me to remind you that if you're not yet a subscriber to CN Magazine, and want to receive the football recruiting wrap-up, the deadline to sign up is this week.
Just click on this link if you're interested: https://secure.theinsiders.com/store/view.aspx?s=171&p=6&key=mag
Sweet 16 Seeding
My weekly projection of the top four seeds in each region for the NCAA Basketball Tournament, if today were Selection Sunday.
(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)