Well, that forecast turned out to be right on, even if not necessarily in the fashion that I had envisioned at that time. Now, along with my preseason projection, I detailed 10 things that I thought needed to happen for this men's basketball season to be considered successful. For this week's column, I thought it might be interesting to go back and look over that list and see how the Cyclones fared.
Here's the countdown, in inverted order…
10. Jared Homan will be ISU's most improved player.
Insiders have been raving throughout the summer about the hard work the big man from Remsen put in during the offseason, especially on the offensive end. As a sophomore, Homan showed flashes of becoming a top-notch Big 12 center. With newcomers Damion Staple and Reggie George in the fold, he won't have to carry the full-load in the pivot and could blossom as a result.
Despite a late fall-off, mainly attributed to a badly sprained ankle that limited his mobility, Homan went from a role player to a guy – when healthy – capable of dominating games in the paint. In February, he was named FoxSports.com National Player of the Week for his efforts against Texas A&M and Kansas. In those two games, he combined for 32 points, 18 rebounds, and 13 blocked shots. Homan's scoring average improved from 7.5 points per game as a sophomore to 11.2 as a junior. He also posted nine more blocked shots than he did last season as well. Homan may be the most important player on the roster next season, but let's not get too ahead of ourselves.
9. Jake Sullivan will remain fresh and healthy for the entire season.
Knock on wood, but the additions of Will Blalock and fellow freshman Curtis Stinson gives ISU excellent backcourt depth to go along with Sullivan and Tim Barnes (provided he makes it back academically). That should keep Sullivan healthy because he won't be asked to log as many minutes or play that much of the point. Blalock and Barnes' ability to penetrate should also help Sullivan get more open looks on the perimeter.
The most obvious part of this item that stands out are the references to Barnes, since he never made it back from his academic woes. That made ISU's backcourt depth – or lack thereof – an issue again. And it also meant that Sullivan was forced to play too many minutes again this season (33.5 per game). Sullivan did stay healthy throughout the entire year, and hit some huge shots as a senior, wins against Texas, Kansas State, and Colorado in particular. Sullivan will go down as one of the greatest shooters in school history, and he's maybe my favorite student-athlete to cover since I started in radio four years ago. However, his poor shooting on the road, and ISU's inability to get him enough open looks away from home as well, contributed to that certain infamous streak we've been talking about the last three years.
8. Freshman Will Blalock will quickly become a fan favorite.
Insiders are comparing him to Allen Iverson. Those privy to the private, individual workouts have barely contained their exuberance after catching a glimpse of him in action. We're already hearing stories of between-the-legs dunks and 40-inch vertical leaps. If this young man is just half as good as the hype than ISU will have something special.
Well, we had the wrong freshman here, didn't we? That's not to say that Blalock did not have a fine freshman year, because he did. He got off to a great start, which included fine performances against Drake and Kansas (11 assists, zero turnovers). However, he hit a wall midway through the year and struggled defensively for much of the season before finding his mojo again recently. Nevertheless, the freshman that ended up becoming a household name was Curtis Stinson, who was not only the top newcomer in the Big 12, but one of the Big 12's best players overall as well.
7. Jackson Vroman will play this season.
Despite the fact he's embarrassed the university on several occasions over the past year, look for Vroman to be allowed to represent ISU basketball. Vroman started off his year by turning student-protester on campus during the Larry Eustachy saga. Then he became academically ineligible. Then he got busted over the Fourth of July for hiding pot in his shoe. Then he got an OWI in October at 2:22 a.m. The school successfully got him reinstated with the Big 12 academically, and this is how he repays them? Please. Nonetheless, he's too good of a player to kick to the curb, and that's why he'll be back. He'll likely get a suspension, and then come back and rank near the league-leaders in rebounding again.
You know, the great debate about whether or not Jackson Vroman should remain on scholarship seems a long time ago now, doesn't it? The program took a lot of heat for taking Vroman back, and deservedly so at the time, I might add. Heck, others within the athletic department that I frequently talk to were even questioning it at the time. Nevertheless, after the fact you have to say the grace shown here, whether it was justified at the time or not, turned out to be a wise investment. Vroman, with the exception of his periodic shot selection and being turnover prone early in the season, has been sensational as a senior. He finished third on the team with 13.2 points per game, which is somewhat misleading because he really poured on the points in the last month. He also paced the team and the Big 12 with 9.7 rebounds per game. Vroman, who deserves to be recognized as a first team all-conference performer, finished with eight double-doubles. Now let's hope he finishes the job by getting his degree.
6. An end to lagging ticket sales at Hilton Coliseum.
One of Coach Morgan's first spoken priorities was upgrading the non-conference schedule, a notion that has proven popular with athletic director Bruce Van De Velde and a fan-base that felt it was being asked to ante up for inferior matchups. Well, mission accomplished. This season the Cyclones will certainly be challenged before Big 12 play with road games at Drake, Virginia, and San Diego State to go along with home dates against Xavier and Iowa. It's a challenging, but not overly ambitious, slate and I'm guessing the fans will respond accordingly at the ticket window.
Final attendance figures aren't in yet, but according to the Ames Tribune season-ticket sales for basketball dropped again this season despite the upgrade in the schedule. And let's look at that schedule for a second. It included as many as 10 NCAA Tournament teams, and three others who are likely bound for the NIT. That's not too shabby. Unfortunately, it doesn't appear the fans bought in, literally, at the box office. According to the official score-sheets of every home game, 177,286 members of Cyclone Nation went through the turnstiles at Hilton Coliseum. That translates to an average of 11,080 fans per game. Not bad, but the only sellout came against the Hawkeyes and there were as many crowds of less than 10,000 as there were of 12,000 or more.
5. A more up-tempo style of basketball is in store.
If you follow Morgan's early recruiting pattern you notice one attribute keeps emerging: athleticism. The Cyclones have been handicapped in the rugged Big 12 because they've lacked athletic players that can get their own shot. Regardless of position, Morgan wants athletic and explosive guys. That emphasis on athleticism translates into the return of a brand of basketball that was put into mothballs after the retirement of Johnny Orr.
The Cyclones were certainly at their best this season when they were on the run, weren't they? Which could have been a negative contributor to that infamous streak that dares not speak its name. On the road, as Eric Heft often tells me, "you need to grind." Grinding isn't ISU's forte, running the floor is. But it's tough to run on the road when you don't have the momentum and emotion automatically going for you. There were certainly some epic games this season, and Hilton was rocking again like we haven't seen the past few years. However, in order to maintain that tempo on the road, you need to have superior athletes, and more of them. That's where recruiting comes in. This team did inherit the stylistic legacy of Orr's teams, and they also inherited their road record.
4. A trend for first year
Unfortunately, this one turned out to be right on. Now, Morgan did finish in some pretty elite company. He's just the third ISU coach, and the first since 1960, to win at least seven league games in his rookie year. Of course, that stat is a little misleading because ISU didn't start playing a 16-game conference schedules until the formation of the Big 12. And, of course, it's hard to finish above .500 in the league when you fail to win a road game.
3. Iowa State will finish with a winning record overall in Wayne Morgan's first season.
The Cyclones have missed the NCAA Tournament two consecutive seasons, and haven't missed out on the Big Dance three years in a row since 1981-83. It's too early to tell how this team will mesh, and if they'll be able to win enough games in the conference to merit a bid. However, there is certainly enough talent to at least be as good as last season's team, which made the second round of the NIT.
Again, we were right on. It appears ISU, barring a miracle in Dallas this weekend, will miss the NCAA Tournament for the third straight year for the first time in over 20 years. Nonetheless, this season has to considered successful when you consider where this program was at 11 months ago, the manner in which Morgan ended up landing the job, and the fact they were pegged for 10th place in the Big 12 before the season. Could this season have provided more than another NIT trip? Absolutely, as Marty Gallagher wrote last week on our site, three plays in three games will ultimately cost the Cyclones a spot in the Field of 65. Still, 11 months ago every Cyclone fan I know would've gladly taken 16-11 with wins over rivals Iowa, Missouri, Kansas, and Texas in a heartbeat.
2. Iowa State will win its first road game in the Big 12 since 2001.
Mark the date January 24th, 2004 on your calendars. That's the day ISU travels to Waco to take on a very troubled and still-reeling Baylor basketball program. It's also the day the Cyclones will end nearly three years worth of road frustration in conference play courtesy of the lowly Bears.
1. Iowa State basketball will be fun again.
The tirades, the defensive struggles, and the intensity was fashionable, old-school-style hoops when Tim Floyd and Larry Eustachy were winning Big 8 Tournaments and Big 12 titles. But the act grew tired with the players and the fans these past two years with the program struggling on and off the court. However, a new energy and enthusiasm level permeates the hallowed halls of Hilton Coliseum. Does that translate into more wins? We shall see. But if a positive outlook counts for anything than ISU basketball should be in good hands with Wayne Morgan.
Fun certainly would be an appropriate word to describe the season. The tempo was fast, many of the games went down to the wire, and the energy – if not necessarily the attendance numbers – was amped up at Hilton Coliseum. Whether it was Homan's left-hand swatting away an opponent's shot, Vroman dunking an offensive rebound, Blalock going end-to-end with the dribble, John Neal's movie script heroics against Iowa, Stinson's "tear-drop" in the lane, or a Sullivan clutch jump-shot from beyond the arc, this team had style. Especially at home. And that made them fun to watch.
Selection Sunday Looms
Although it's likely we'll be left without the Cyclones, or any team from the state of Iowa, to root for in the NCAA Tournament again this season, I'm still excited about March Madness. And I know a lot of you are as well. Thus, for your edification, here is my projection of what the NCAA Tournament bracket will look like six days from today:
East—1. St. Joseph's, 2. Pittsburgh, 3. N.C. State, 4. Kansas, 5. Wake Forest, 6. Providence, 7. Alabama, 8. South Carolina, 9. Southern Illinois, 10. Colorado, 11. DePaul, 12. Notre Dame, 13. Manhattan, 14. Boston University, 15. Monmouth, 16. Lehigh.
West—1. Stanford, 2. Kentucky, 3. Gonzaga, 4. North Carolina, 5. Wisconsin, 6. Boston College, 7. Dayton, 8. Texas Tech, 9. BYU, 10. Charlotte, 11. Maryland, 12. Washington, 13. Central Florida, 14. East Tennessee State, 15. Eastern Washington, 16. Louisiana-Lafayette.
South—1. Duke, 2. Connecticut, 3. Texas, 4. Illinois, 5. Seton Hall, 6. Memphis, 7. Vanderbilt, 8. Arizona, 9. LSU, 10. UTEP, 11. Utah, 12. Northern Iowa, 13. Virginia Commonwealth, 14. Princeton, 15. Mississippi Valley State, 16. SE Louisiana.
Midwest—1. Mississippi State, 2. Oklahoma State, 3. Syracuse, 4. Georgia Tech, 5. Cincinnati, 6. Florida, 7. Louisville, 8. Air Force, 9. Michigan State, 10. Western Michigan, 11. Utah State, 12. Murray State, 13. Wisconsin-Milwaukee, 14. Liberty, 15. Valparaiso, 16. Coppin State.
Last four in—Maryland, Colorado, Notre Dame, Washington.
(Steve Deace can be heard
on the radio in Iowa on 1460-KXNO, the flagship of the Cyclone Radio Network,
each weekday from 3-6 p.m.)