The Cyclones concluded a character-building, three-game stretch of non-conference action with a tough 70-63 loss at 17th-ranked Iowa on Friday night. That game was preceded by a 99-82 loss at underrated Northern Iowa and an 81-79 upset victory of No. 19 Virginia at Hilton Coliseum.
After yesterday's trouncing of Howard, ISU stands at 5-2. It should improve its record to 8-2 between now and the New Year, when it begins what appears to be its most challenging month of its season in January.
Here's what we know so far, starting with the good news:
This team's athleticism is as advertised. The most athletic team in the building didn't win that game at Carver-Hawkeye Arena. In fact, ISU has been the physically superior team in every game it's played this season. And with the exception of elite conference foes like Kansas, Oklahoma State, and Texas that could pretty much be the case the rest of the way. ISU is versatile and deep, just as was projected before the campaign started. When the Cyclones crank up the tempo they are tough to contend with on both sides of the court.
Despite their collective youth, ISU has handled adversity. Let's face it, the UNI loss was a complete washout. There simply wasn't anything of merit to salvage from that loss. The bulk of the credit goes to the Panthers, but the lack of intensity and interest the Cyclones showed in that game certainly aided their cause. In the next game, against a nationally ranked opponent, ISU started poorly and trailed Virginia, 10-2, at the outset. ISU responded by shaking off the butterflies and forging a 26-10 run. Later on, just when it seemed as if a game they had dominated most of the way was slipping away, they didn't wilt. Against Iowa it would've been easy to mail it in after Curtis Stinson fouled out. Most of us in the media – and probably most of you fans, if you're honest – actually did. However, the Cyclones upped the intensity ante and ended up making it a winnable contest until the final 30 seconds.
Jared Homan has come to play. Any concerns about what kind of season the senior pivot man would have minus former partner Jackson Vroman haven't seemed warranted, at least so far. Homan has improved his footwork with his back to the basket, but he's still at his best away from the hoop. Against the Hawkeyes he was simply unstoppable. Though it will be tough to ask him to give that kind of performance night in and night out, Homan has avoided the foul trouble that has bedeviled him earlier in his career while giving the squad a physical presence inside.
The thrill is with Will. Curtis Stinson is not the only sensational sophomore in ISU's backcourt. Will Blalock, who had an up-and-down freshman season, is asserting himself. He really picked up the slack for Stinson when he fouled out of the Iowa game with the Cyclones trailing by 10 points, and showed some of the quickness and defense that made him a prized recruit two years ago. Blalock's floor game against the Cavaliers was flawless as well. If recent history is indicative of future performance, ISU could very well have the top guard tandem in the Big 12.
John Neal is the defensive stopper. The former walk-on from Winterset still hasn't flashed that perimeter game ISU needs, but he has lived up to his defensive reputation. He was the unsung hero of the Virginia win, playing the rover role down the stretch against Devin Smith when the Cyclones deployed a box-in-one. He also was effective against Iowa's Pierre Pierce again in the second half of Friday night. I think Morgan should consider starting Neal in place of Tasheed Carr.
Now for the concerns:
A fourth scorer must emerge. After the Iowa game I talked to someone in the tunnel who knows basketball in this state very well, and who's opinion I don't always agree with but I certainly respect. When I asked him what he thought of the game and what he thought of ISU's NCAA Tournament prospects he said he definitely thought they had the athletes, but that they must develop a fourth option on offense between now and the conference season. And if you look at the difference on Friday night you'd have to say that's a rather astute observation. ISU contained Greg Brunner while pestering Jeff Horner. Pierce had a good, not great, game. In past years, that would've been enough to beat the Hawkeyes. But now with Adam Haluska hitting wide-open shots from beyond the arc, they have a fourth credible scorer and his points were the difference against ISU. Meanwhile, Stinson fouled out leaving Blalock and Homan to carry the load. There was no fourth option for Morgan to call on. Rahshon Clark and Rob Faulkner are the most likely candidates to fill that vacancy.
A lack of mental focus, which is not to be confused with mental toughness. We already discussed how well the Cyclones have battled adversity. That is to be commended, but what we failed to mention is that most of that adversity is self-inflicted. Whether it's playing you-got-‘em defense against UNI, making just 12-of-27 free throws to let Virginia hang around, or being minus-6 in the turnover department in Iowa City, youth is being served when it comes to mistakes. ISU isn't the first young team to struggle from the charity stripe under scrutiny or to value the basketball under pressure. Correcting this is the coaches' primary task, although ultimately there is no substitute for experience.
Paging Damion Staple. He's not hurt, as far as we know, and there are certainly frontcourt minutes he could stake a claim to. Nevertheless, the former second team junior college All-American is MIA right now. Last season he was banged up, so we never got a complete glimpse of his skills. This season we've barely seen a passing glimpse of him on the court at all. Considering the state of Faulkner's knee, and Reggie George's still-developing game, he is a needed factor come conference play.
Curtis Stinson needs to keep his cool. He's the same bulldog driving to the basket that we remember last year. His court vision and jump shot are better than they were a season ago. So are we nit-picking here? Perhaps, but consider this constructive criticism. He uncharacteristically lost his cool in the Virginia game, and then got into a shoving match at the end of the Iowa game. When he fouled out of that contest, he was demonstratively distressed during a timeout, instead of encouraging his teammates. Normally this isn't atypical behavior for a sophomore, but nothing about Stinson's career thus far has been typical and he's not a typical player. As a leader, what you do without the basketball in your hands matters just as much as when you do, particularly with young teammates looking for a role model.
In conclusion, I still think Cyclone Nation has ample reasoning to remain optimistic about this team's postseason prospects. And I fully expect this team will finish in the first division of the conference and wind up in the NCAA Tournament come March. In fact, I think ISU will be one of three men's teams from the state of Iowa invited to participate in March Madness.
You can still join us at the Independence Bowl
Are you finally over the disappointment of losing to Missouri and missing out on that Houston Bowl invite and ready to follow the Cyclones to Shreveport?
If you answered yes, then I'd like to personally invite you to join Bill Seals and I on the Cyclone Gridiron Club Independence Bowl Charter. We'll leave Des Moines the afternoon of December 27th, and come home the afternoon of the 29th. In between we'll stay two nights at the top-notch Horse Shoe Casino and Hotel, one of the top lodging establishments in the area, and hang out with the fourth ISU football team in five years to earn a bowl bid.
If you're interested in coming onboard, just click on the following link:
(Steve Deace can be heard on the radio each weekday from 3-6 p.m. on 1460-KXNO, the flagship of the Cyclone Radio Network.)