Three Plays = Three Losses in '04

I'm an optimist. Probably to a fault. But after the 68-65 loss in Lincoln on Saturday, I cannot hold out hope for ISU's invitation to the "Big Dance" any longer. Those thoughts were lost when the final horn sounded and Nebraska had handed the Cyclones their second-consecutive, gut-wrenching road loss.

And, of course, this was Iowa State's 748th consecutive road loss in Big 12 play…or whatever the string is at now.

I have no delusions today about the Cyclones winning the Big 12 Tournament. I just don't think they could pull it off against the talented—and deep—teams they would have to face.

The reality of this situation—another NIT berth—left me feeling many things…

Disappointment. There is no greater event in sports than the NCAA Tournament. None. Nothing is even close. The Cyclones need to get back into this thing…I just hope it's sooner, rather than later.

Frustration. I really wanted to see Jake Sullivan end his ISU career participating in "March Madness." You can't begin to imagine the amount of time this guy has spent on developing his skills and working to improve during his career in Ames. It's a shame that he won't be involved in college basketball's biggest show.

Anger. You know, if this team could have made about 65% to 70% of its free throws on the road, this season would've played out much differently.

Proud. Thinking about everything this team went through in the last 10 to 12 months, I think the Cyclones have had a good season. I'm also very happy that ISU became a much more competitive team on the road later in the year, showing signs of maturity and improvement. This team also has started to rebound the ball much better on the road…and this lesson will bode well for next season, as well.

One of the things that really stinks about all of this is that I think Coach Wayne Morgan's team has been playing some very good basketball of late and appears to still be improving. Rebounding has greatly improved lately. Jackson Vroman is playing the best ball of his career. Marcus Jefferson has returned to add some depth.

Iowa State is definitely a team that could pull off an upset in the Field of 64. I guarantee you that the Cyclones would not be a fun team to play…for anyone. They have a great scorer/playmaker (Stinson), a great shooter (Sullivan) and a strong inside presence (Vroman).

What a great story it WOULD have been. All the off-season turmoil…a new coach…a pair of talented freshmen guards…a former walk-on providing a spark…and so forth.

They were SOOOOOOOO close to making it happen. How close? My feeling is that three plays made all the difference in the world this season. Three plays will keep Iowa State out of the NCAA Tourney. This, of course, adds to the frustration…being so close, but remaining on the outside, looking in. (As a Cub fan, I became very familiar with this concept last October.)

Here are the three plays that were the difference…

1) Jared Homan sprained his ankle late in the game against Iowa on January 21. The Cyclones defeated the Hawkeyes, 84-76, that night, but Homan's injury kept him out of the next game at Baylor. Iowa State went into the game against the lowly Bears with an 11-3 record, including a 2-1 mark in the Big 12.

On paper, it looked like this game would help the Cyclones improve to 12-3 and 3-1, which would have likely pushed ISU into the Top 25 nationally…and put an end to that miserable Big 12 road losing streak. Instead, Baylor out-rebounded ISU (42 to 33) in a 63-59 Cyclone loss.

How much of a difference would Homan have made? I have no questions in my mind that Iowa State would have won that game with him. Four days later, he had 20 points, 10 rebounds and seven blocked shots in a victory over Texas A&M.

2) Keith Langford's three-pointer with 28 seconds remaining in regulation on February 21. Iowa State had battled back from a 17-point deficit to take a three-point lead with less than a minute to play, when the Kansas junior made his only three-pointer of the game (1 for 5) to knot the score at 72-72. The Jayhawks won the game, 90-89, in overtime.

If Langford misses that shot and the Cyclones (who out-rebounded Kansas 57-50) get the board, one or two more free throws probably give ISU the victory.

Sure, I could have picked the ridiculous officiating error that GAVE the Jayhawks three points in the first half…or the missed free throw by Stinson that would have given ISU a four-point lead…but, without the heroic basket by Langford, the Cyclones still would have been in great shape to take home a road win.

3) The failure to in-bound the ball in the final 30 seconds against Nebraska on February 28. You can argue all you want that Sullivan did or didn't touch the ball last. The real issue is that Iowa State was not able to execute a fundamental play in the waning moments of a one-point game…and it cost the team a victory.

If the pass to Sullivan is completed, it's likely that the Huskers foul pretty quickly and nobody is more automatic at the line than Sullivan. You could sense that, when ISU turned the ball over in this situation, the feeling of "here we go again" had to be suffocating for the Cyclones. And, in fact, the game hinged on that play.

If these three plays had ended differently, we could be talking about an Iowa State team with an 18-7 record, including a 9-5 mark in the very tough Big 12 Conference. We would be wondering about the Cyclones' seed in the NCAA Tournament…not lamenting over another NIT invite. We would look at the last two games on the Cyclones' schedule and figure that a split gives them a 19-8 overall record (10-6 in the Big 12) heading into the Big 12 Tourney and a 20-win season would appear likely.

Of course, all the minor details are part of what makes college basketball so great to watch. So often, these plays mean the difference between winning and losing.

Does it help me feel any better to realize how close Iowa State was to having a "dream season" this year? Not really.

If "ifs" and "buts" were candy and nuts, every team would make the "Big Dance" in March. Or something.

But for any Cyclone fans out there who wonder if this program is headed in the right direction, it might help you to know that despite the low points of last spring, Iowa State came within a few plays of making a LOT of noise this season. And that should give us all some hope for next season.

There's that optimism again.

(Marty Gallagher founded the popular web site You can e-mail him at

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