I have started and re-started this week's column on the state of the Iowa State men's basketball season thus far numerous times because I wasn't sure which direction to take with it.
Then I realized why I wasn't sure how I felt about the season at hand. It's because the season is, for all intents and purposes, at critical mass already. I still remain optimistic about how it could turn out, but I'm also not so ignorant as to ignore some of the ominous signs as well.
Right now the Cyclones are 8-6 overall and 0-3 in the Big 12 Conference. That's probably not too far off what many of us projected they would be at this point before the season started. My preseason projection was 9-7 in the league and 18-9 overall. Based on my game-by-game forecast, ISU is currently two games behind that pace. I picked the Cyclones to beat Xavier given the Musketeers' personnel losses and upset Kansas, which traditionally struggles in Ames.
January has been unkind to ISU, which shouldn't be much of a surprise given the schedule. Three of the teams the Cyclones have lost to during this four-game losing streak were in the Elite Eight last year, and three of the losses occurred on the road. In the November men's basketball preview issue of CN Magazine I wrote the following about this crucial juncture of the season:
Six of the seven games ISU will play after the New Year comes against teams that were either in the postseason NIT or NCAA Tournament last season. If the Cyclones can find a way to win at least two of those games, they should soar towards season's end with a more manageable schedule.
The final three games of the month are against Colorado (53rd in the RPI), Oklahoma (26th), and Kansas State (145th). The first two are inside the friendly confines of Hilton Coliseum, the last one at the site of ISU's last conference road victory, which was 1,426 days ago.
All three of these games are certainly winnable, and if the Cyclones pull off the hat-trick they're right back on track for the NCAA Tournament berth we were all hoping for at the beginning of the season. Not to mention, of course, they would've snapped the streak-which-must-not-be-named in the process.
Then you look at the schedule in February, when ISU will play just three games against teams that were in the Field of 65 last March. I originally thought ISU could win seven or eight of their last 10 games to close out the campaign, and that is still quite possible.
Some of the pieces on the board are not where we originally thought they would be. Players once counted on to be productive members of a versatile, 10-man ISU rotation are no longer available. Depth and multiplicity are no longer the strengths they were expected to be. Reggie George is gone for good for a lack of discipline. Robert Faulkner may be gone for the season because of academics. Anthony Davis has been in and out of the lineup because of a shoulder injury. Damion Staple has only shown brief glimpses of the ability that made him a JUCO All-American. Aaron Agnew has been deemed unready to contribute thus far. Rahshon Clark and Tasheed Carr have been shuffled in and out of the lineup because of inconsistency, so they really don't have a foundation established yet. Assistant coach Bob Sundvold, a key member of the brain trust, decides to leave for a minor league job just weeks into preseason practice.
As a result, team chemistry and execution at times isn't quite where we expected it to be, either.
In addition, some teams once thought to be doormats suddenly don't look so conquerable. Texas Tech looks like it has improved after blowout losses to Iowa and Ohio State. Kansas State looks poised to finally capitalize on a some solid recruiting, and Jim Woolridge is always a tough coaching matchup for ISU anyway. Rebuilding Colorado is higher in the RPI than Missouri and ISU. Lincoln is always a tough place for the Cyclones to play. Texas A&M's program is finally showing some life under Billy Gillespie.
In other words, ISU's margin for error the rest of the way is less than what we hoped it would be in the preseason.
This is still a program in development under a head coach who has only been on the job for less than 21 months, who is just now beginning to recruit the type of athletes necessary for his brand of basketball. This is still a program capable of playing the first (Kansas) and fourth (Oklahoma State) place teams in the RPI down to the wire, after losing listlessly to a team ranked 198th (Xavier) thanks to 16 offensive rebounds.
I think there are three ways the rest of the season could unfold, and I'll rank them in order from the least likely to occur to the most likely.
1. Iowa State's lack of depth stunts the team's development and the Cyclones finish with a losing record.
As it stands now, unless Staple undergoes a consistency transplant, Jared Homan is going to be asked to play 37-40 minutes a night based on the caliber of competition. He is the Cyclones' most valuable player because he's their only inside presence. If he's in foul trouble the Cyclones will struggle to beat any of their remaining opponents. If he wears down physically despite his excellent conditioning another postseason appearance is in serious jeopardy. However, when he's on the floor playing well the Cyclones can compete with anybody left on their schedule.
Unfortunately, that's not the only pressing issue for ISU. Can Davis stay healthy? Will John Neal re-discover his jump shot? If the role players don't develop, will the "big three" essentially break off from the rest of the team?
This is the doomsday scenario for ISU and Morgan, and also the least likely to happen. Last season ISU got better as the season wore on, and last week ISU got better despite the losses. Morgan has also demonstrated the ability to rally the team in the gloomiest of times, and in his season and a half at the helm we've rarely seen ISU quit, and never at home. Odds of a meltdown: 15%.
2. Iowa State follows the lead of the football team and rebounds to close the season strong and earn its first bid to the NCAA Tournament in four years.
This rosy scenario would probably result in Wayne Morgan being named Big 12 Coach of the Year, and it's the second-least likely to occur. Of course, the idea of ISU winning just its second bowl championship ever back in mid-October also seemed far-fetched, and looked what happened there!
Still, even though ISU may be down to a seven-man rotation, it is still a talented seven-man rotation. For this to happen, Staple needs to emerge, Faulkner needs to regain his eligibility, and either Davis, Clark, or Carr needs to become a fourth offensive option.
ISU also has to win every winnable game on its schedule the rest of the way. Because of the unimpressive showing in the non-conference season. Just going 9-7 in the Big 12 probably won't be enough. More than likely ISU needs to finish 10-6 in the league. Can the Cyclones win 10 of their last 13 games? Unlikely given the youth and lack of depth. Odds of a complete turnaround: 25%.
3. Iowa State improves steadily as the season wears on, eventually breaks the streak-which-must-not-be-named, and finishes with another winning season and NIT berth.
This is essentially a repeat of last season, and would make Wayne Morgan just the second Cyclone basketball skipper in the last 50 years to post consecutive winning records in his first two seasons. This is also the most likely scenario to occur. I have too much faith in Morgan and the character of the talented players at his disposal to believe a meltdown will occur. On the other hand, there is simply too little margin for error to expect to see this team back in the Big Dance. Odds of a solid, not spectacular, season: 60%.
As you can see, I'm predicting we'll see option number three, which would make it three straight trips to the NIT for the Cyclones. That may not exactly make your pulse race, but it does show the program isn't too far away from getting back to the real March Madness. ISU hasn't missed the NCAA Tournament four straight seasons since 1980-84, the first four seasons under Johnny Orr.
Let's revise our season forecast with 8-8 in the Big 12, 16-11 overall, and a first round matchup in the NIT at Hilton Coliseum against Creighton on Tuesday, March 15th.
Sweet 16 Seeds
Now that the second half of the college basketball season has arrived, it's time to project that we think are the top contenders for the top seeds in the NCAA Tournament. Selection Sunday is just eight weeks away.
The 3rd Annual CN Recruiting Party
This year's event is Thursday, February 10th beginning at 7:30 p.m. It will
be held at Third Base Sports Bar, which is located at 1720 25th
Street in West Des Moines inside the Westwood Entertainment Center.
This place is much bigger than our former venue, so we should be able to pack them in. In case you've never been to one of football recruiting parties in the past they are blast! Members of the ISU coaching staff donate their time to come down and break down the incoming recruiting class that just signed, answer questions from the audience about the class and the team, and show the highlight tape of the incoming class as well.
Plus, we always have a ton of great prizes to give away. You won't want to miss it!
(Steve Deace can be heard on the radio each weekday in Iowa from 3-6 p.m. on 1460-KXNO, the flagship of the Cyclone Radio Network.)