Big Dance hopes still have a pulse

In his latest column, Marty Gallagher takes a look at the Cyclones' chances of hearing their name called on Selection Sunday just over three weeks from now.

With most of the second half remaining on Saturday and the Cyclones trailing by 14 points, I didn't feel very well. Neither did you, I'm sure. Iowa State was on the verge of its fourth straight blowout loss…and its "March Madness" hopes were fading fast. Texas looked like a team talented enough to beat the Chicago Bulls.

But you know what? I kept watching. And so did you.

That tells you about all you need to know about "Hilton Magic" right there.

I'm not sure at what point I began to believe the Cyclones were going to beat the Longhorns. Was it on one of Jake Sullivan's patented stand-at-25-feet-and-step-back-then-fade-away bombs that had to feel like a kick to the gut for Rick Barnes every time the ball thwapped through the net? Was it on one of the "there must be THREE Curtis Stinsons out there!" plays where the freshman grabs a loose ball, leads the break, makes the pass, gets the offensive rebound and then scores in traffic?

I know I had my doubts when Jackson Vroman fouled out with a handful of minutes remaining. But, I didn't mind it at all that Coach Wayne Morgan made the gamble he did by leaving Vroman on the court with four fouls.

I also had some doubts when James "21-inch waist and 48-inch chest" Thomas made both of his free throws late in the game.

But, I couldn't stop watching. And neither could you.

Watching on TV, it's difficult to tell how loud a crowd REALLY is in the arena. But on Saturday, that was as LOUD as I can remember a game at Hilton Coliseum for a long time. The TV announcers were in awe of their surroundings…and it was as if the crowd SHOULD be included in ISU's box score after the game.

When Brian Boddicker bricked the two free throws with five seconds remaining, I could feel myself leaning, swaying, wincing and flinching each time a Longhorn touched the ball in the mad scramble that followed. And when the final horn sounded—as I was holding my one-year old son—I gave out a yell that I'm sure had to scare him.

But, he didn't cry.

Another sign of "Hilton Magic."

So, what needs to happen now for there to be an invitation to The Dance?

Iowa State is 14-7 overall and 5-5 in the Big 12 Conference. With six regular-season games remaining, I think the Cyclones will need to go 4-2 to be sure of a spot in The Madness. That would give them an 18-9 overall mark, with a 9-7 record in one of the nation's best leagues…and that should do it. Plus, ISU has "quality wins" over Kansas and Texas.

In addition, and you might not want to think about this, Iowa State has a "good" win over Iowa. The Hawkeyes are playing pretty well right now and have a chance to finish with a pretty good record in the Big Ten, which would be GOOD for the Cyclones. Even though the Big Ten is having a down year, beating a team with a winning mark in that conference is still a good win.

Could the Cyclones make it with a 3-3 split the rest of the way? I really doubt it, unless ISU pulled off an incredible run in the conference tournament…like an appearance in the finals. I think they NEED to go 4-2 to make it, otherwise.

What are the odds of a 4-2 finish? Let's take a look at who the Cyclones have remaining…

That's a pretty tough home stretch, my friends. First, let's count the probable victories: Kansas State and Colorado…two. Next, let's look at the probable losses: at Kansas and at Texas Tech…two.

So, it looks like the two biggest games of the season might boil down to road contests at Missouri (5-5 in the Big 12) and Nebraska (4-6 in the Big 12). (If only ISU would've taken care of business at Baylor!)

Considering the performances we've seen from this Iowa State team on the road this season, the odds might not look all that great. But, I really believe that the Big 12 road losing streak will come to an end within the next few weeks.

And the entire season doesn't rest with this week's game against the Tigers, either. If Iowa State handles Kansas State and Colorado in Ames…and can pull the upset of the Cornhuskers in Lincoln, then the final game of the season at Texas Tech suddenly carries all the weight. Coach Bob Knight's squad has been limping a little bit lately, winning only twice in its last six games.

One area this team will need to shore up to make such a run…

The phase of the game that scares me the most about Iowa State is rebounding. You might be able to get away with losing the rebounding battle 45-28 when you're playing within the confines of Hilton…and apparently the Cyclones were good enough on Saturday to overcome 18 offensive rebounds by Texas…but on the road, those types of stats are just killers.

The Cyclones CANNOT have a double-digit deficit on the glass at Missouri and win the game. They CANNOT give up a double-digit offensive rebound total against the Tigers and have a chance.

The good news is that rebounding CAN be improved. And I'm sure that rebounding has been a very big emphasis the last couple of days for this Cyclone team.

Winning the battle on the boards is also a tremendous equalizer when you're playing a good team on the road. Iowa State may need the extra possessions to hang in there at Missouri, at Kansas, at Nebraska and at Texas Tech. If the Cyclones can out-rebound Missouri, for example, their odds of making it a close game and having a chance in the last few minutes are greatly improved.

Rebounding is all about positioning, desire, timing…and then athletic ability. You have to be willing to make contact EVERY time a shot goes up…and hold your block out until the last possible moment…and then ATTACK the ball like every rebound means the season. A substandard effort on the glass in ANY ONE of Iowa State's remaining road games will spell defeat…and ultimately, it may mean the difference between the "Big Dance" and the NIT.

With that in mind, I sure hope we see the type of effort that was evident in the final 10 minutes against Texas on Saturday.

The trick will be to find that extra gear…and all that additional energy…when the "Magic" is miles away.

(Marty Gallagher founded the popular web site IowaSportsOpinions.com. You can e-mail him at Marty@IowaSportsOpinions.com.)


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