ISU Will Leave NYC with NIT Title

If you could find ONE thing to complain about Iowa State's victory over Marquette to earn a spot in the NIT's Final Four, it was that the Cyclones had the game by the throat with <I>too much</I> time remaining. It was sort of a boring finish. Where was the fast and furious rally by Marquette? Iowa State simply wouldn't allow it.

Coach Wayne Morgan's team was sooooo on top of its game—especially defensively—that there would be no opportunities for "Hilton Magic" to make something crazy happen in the end. No Boddicker bricking free throws. No Paulding pull-up jumpers bouncing off the rim. No Chalmers or Sato misfiring three-pointers.

Instead, Iowa State controlled the game in the second half, never giving Marquette a chance to claw back into it. The Cyclones took a double-digit lead with 17:35 to play and the lead never dipped below 10 points until there was less than a minute remaining. And that, my friends, is what good teams do when they get another team on the ropes. They knock 'em out.

Whether this is the NIT or not, Iowa State has developed into a pretty good basketball team. Like you, I'm not the biggest NIT fan in the world. But, I think the Cyclones are on the verge of finishing the 2003-04 season on a tremendous run…and playing their best basketball of the season.

Hmmm. Playing their best basketball of the season in March? I like the sound of that. It's another sign of a very good team…and a telltale sign of some outstanding coaching.

Kudos to Wayne Morgan for the job he and his fine staff have done. They persevered through a painful offseason last summer. They battled through a rough stretch of Big 12 play when the team was playing "Jekyll-and-Hyde" at home and on the road. Through it all, the Cyclones have continued to improve.

My feeling is that the best is yet to come. And it will be a tremendous reward for Morgan, Jake Sullivan, Jackson Vroman, Marcus Jefferson and all the rest.

What does Rutgers have? Obviously, a pretty good team, as well. Ricky Shields, a 6-4 guard, is the team's leading scorer at 15.5 points per game. Shields is certainly not shy about jacking up three-pointers, having made 89 of 232 (38%) this season. Herve Lamizana is a 6-10 forward who averages 13.4 points and a team-high 7.7 boards per game. He's also not shy about launching shots from downtown, either, with 89 attempts so far this season. Quincy Douby is a 6-3 freshman guard, who is a native of Brooklyn, NY, so he will be as fired up as anybody in the Rutgers rotation on Tuesday night. Douby averages 12.1 points per game and has netted 63 three-pointers this year at a 43% clip.

Get the feeling that Rutgers likes to put it up from the cheap seats? As a team, they have made 229 three-pointers this season, making 37% of their attempts…pretty impressive numbers, to be sure. (By comparison, ISU has made 150 three-pointers.)

So, this game may well come down to Iowa State's effectiveness in its zone defense. Namely, can the Cyclones identify Rutgers' shooters and contest their perimeter shots? And, with the defense focusing on limiting good looks from long range…can ISU manage to block out well and hold Rutgers to very few second shots? These are the big keys.

After watching Iowa State play against Marquette, I have plenty of confidence that this team is up to the challenge. After defeating Florida State in Tallahassee last week, I think this team is up to the challenge of playing well in Madison Square Garden…just a wee little bit outside of the 515 area code.

I think Rutgers will struggle to find its perimeter shooting touch in the first half and the Cyclones will build an early lead, based on the penetration abilities of Curtis Stinson and the inside games of Vroman and Jared Homan. Iowa State will win the battle in the paint on Tuesday night and that often leads to consistent results at both ends of the floor. In the second half, Sullivan will knock down some big shots to hold off a late Rutgers' rally and ISU will prevail, 68 to 63.

As far as the potential opponent in the NIT finals? I don't care. The way I feel about the Iowa State basketball team right now…I say bring 'em on. Michigan? Oregon? Can the Cyclones really knock those teams down in March?

Remember that ISU defeated Kansas (Elite Eight), Xavier (Elite Eight) and Texas (Sweet 16) earlier this season and I think you have an idea. Then consider the fact that the Cyclones are playing their best basketball right now…and I think you'll have the answer.

It may be "just the NIT," but we're only a couple of days from April and Iowa State is still playing. Now, THAT'S a good thing.

There are six Big 12 teams that have recorded at least 20 victories this season: Oklahoma State, Kansas, Texas, Texas Tech, Oklahoma…and Iowa State.

And only TWO of those schools are still playing. Personally, I like both of those schools to end their seasons with victories in April.

(Marty Gallagher founded the popular web site IowaSportsOpinions.com and now publishes IowaPrepsToday.com. E-mail him at Marty@IowaSportsOpinions.com.)


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