It is finished. Finally, it's no more. Gone if not necessarily forgotten. Done with once and for all. Cyclone Nation's long national nightmare is over.
The streak-which-must-not-be-named no longer haunts Iowa State men's basketball and its fans like vicious and lingering gastro-intestinal disturbances the morning after consuming too many bitter beers.
And as we've predicted all along the conclusion to our basketball hostage crisis came in stunning fashion when we least expected it. Not even the most naïve cardinal-and-gold optimist had February 5th in Austin against nationally ranked Texas pegged as a win before the season, let alone the site of ISU's road exorcism. As if that wasn't astonishing enough, the manner in which the Cyclones finally overcame the curse of the blue splotch was even more so.
It wasn't one of the big three – Jared Homan, Curtis Stinson, and Will Blalock – that lifted the Cyclones to the upset. Sure, they played their vital parts, but it was the emergence of that elusive fourth contributor from the decreasing-in-number "supporting cast" that provided the spark. Freshman Tasheed Carr had been averaging just 3.4 points per game heading into Saturday, yet he was steadily beginning to show the confidence that attracted Wayne Morgan to him during the recruiting process in the past two wins against Oklahoma and Baylor.
In Austin he hit his stride and more than his fair share of big shots as well. He scored a game-high 23 points, including five-of-eight from three-point range. He also hit the game's biggest shot, a cold-blooded three-pointer that gave ISU the first points of overtime and set the tone for a near-record 24-point explosion in the extra session.
Down eight with 4 minutes and 31 seconds remaining in regulation, it looked like a 29th straight away defeat in the Big 12 was in the offing. But this time it was ISU's turn to force a late-game meltdown instead of succumbing to one. A dunk by Damion Staple – and isn't it good to see him finally playing like a second team junior college All-American the past two weeks? – sparked an 11-3 closing run that forced overtime.
Finally all the hard work, all the close calls, all the hand-wringing, and all the previous disappointment paid off. Finally this program knows what it means to win on the road in the conference.
However, in the back-drop of the streak-snapper is the fact that ISU has now won three straight following a six-game losing streak, and all three victories were similarly fashioned. All three were keyed by a tenacious, attacking defense that set the tone for the offense. All three were keyed by somebody other than Homan, Blalock, and Stinson providing the early offense. Against Oklahoma, Stinson and Blalock took nearly 13 minutes to get into the scorer's column, but ISU still had established a 17-11 lead. Against Baylor it was a career night – the first of what is likely many – from Rahshon Clark. Against Texas it was Carr who was the ignition.
Despite a short bench, despite a season's worth of adversity already (unless you're the Hawkeyes), and despite a season that was on the brink of annihilation two weeks ago, the Cyclones all of the sudden have an identity and a purpose. They're playing hard and playing defense, which they've done pretty much all season long. But now they're playing together and making some shots, and you can't have the latter consistently without the former.
We never would've guessed it at the time, but it appears as if the "Colorado Crash" was the rock-bottom this team needed to come to some harsh realizations about itself. Not the least of which is that they need one another to win. Perhaps that's what was hashed out in the 45-minute player's only meeting after that fiasco?
Stop me if you've read this script before. An Iowa State team gets off to a decent start, including a tough road loss at nationally-rated Iowa that was closer than expected. Fans seem satisfied until a midseason meltdown that is capped by a crushing home loss. Then, just when everyone is off the bandwagon, the squad bounces back to finish strong, including a postseason triumph.
If that sounds familiar it should, because it's the storyline of the 2004 ISU football season. Is it déjà vu all over again for men's basketball?
So far, so good. However, the postseason conclusion is the tricky part for Cyclone basketball. Despite the big wins over the Sooners and Longhorns, ISU is still just 91st in the very important RPI. Considering the Cyclones only have two games left against opponents currently in the top 50 of the RPI, it's hard to imagine them climbing into the top 50 themselves, which is almost a requirement for getting an at-large NCAA Tournament berth.
They also don't have a quality non-conference resume to submit for NCAA Tournament consideration. Thus, ISU could conceivably finish 9-7 in the conference, which is still a lot to ask for this depleted team, and only end up on the Selection Committee's bubble at best.
A 10-6 team in the Big 12 would be tough for the Selection Committee to ignore no matter what their RPI rating is. Short of that improbable finish, it looks as if ISU is headed back to the NIT for the third straight year. Nonetheless, winning that nondescript (and that's being kind) tournament could provide a young team much-needed momentum heading into next season, just as Dan McCarney is hoping the Independence Bowl triumph does for his football program.
Of course, just because the men may be left out of March Madness doesn't mean that Cyclone Nation is out of NCAA Tournament options. Read on.
Big 12 Champs?
Completing the Lone Star Sweep for ISU on Saturday was Bill Fennelly's women's program, which defeated Texas at home before the largest crowd to watch them play at Hilton Coliseum this season.
The Cyclones are now all alone in first place in the Big 12 at 8-1 and 18-2 overall, a half-game ahead of Kansas State. Right now Fennelly has to be a front-runner for National Coach of the Year, let alone Big 12 Coach of the Year. ISU wasn't in anybody's preseason top 25 and was pegged for sixth or seventh in the conference coming off last year's run to the semifinals of the WNIT.
Heading into this season the edict came down from Fennelly that this season was NCAA Tournament or bust with a strong quintet of seniors returning. He was tired of rebuilding and mediocrity and his team has certainly responded to the challenge. They came into this week 27th in the RPI, and should climb even higher after beating the Longhorns.
However, now the schedule gets tougher. The pace-setting Cyclones may have the toughest schedule down the stretch of all the other championship wannabes. Of ISU's four remaining road games, three are against fellow conference contenders Texas Tech (Tuesday night), Nebraska (Saturday), and Baylor (February 19th). The fourth road game is at bottom-feeder Missouri. If the Cyclones sweep their remaining home games against Oklahoma State, Kansas, and Texas A&M – which they should – and win at least one of the four remaining road games that would give them 12 conference victories. That should be good enough for at least a share of the Big 12 title.
That could also impress the Selection Committee enough to give ISU a friendly path to its first Final Four via Minneapolis and Kansas City, which are venues likely to be taken over by Cyclone Nation and turned into homes away from home. The first and second rounds in Minneapolis are slated for March 19th and 21st at Williams Arena. Tickets can be ordered online atwww.gophersports.com. The Regionals at Kansas City's Municipal Coliseum are March 27th and 29th. Those tickets can be ordered online at www.umkckangaroos.com.
And in case you're really feeling frisky the Women's Final Four is at the RCA Dome in Indianapolis on April 3rd and 5th, about a six hour drive from Hilton Coliseum.
Can't Buy Me Love
Who says money is the answer to all of our problems in life?
The last two weekends the Cyclones have swept Oklahoma and Texas on the hard-wood, despite the fact their athletic department budgets more than dwarf what's at Iowa State's disposal.
In the latest figures I have, which are fiscal year 2002, Texas has the Big 12's biggest budget at $49.4 million, while the Sooners were third at $42 million. ISU was 11th in the Big 12 at $23.4 million. Nevertheless, all that money and its advantages weren't able to help Texas and Oklahoma once the ball was tipped.
Just goes to show the money is nice, and you'd rather have it as opposed to not having it, but it's no substitute for hiring and recruiting good people.
Sweet 16 Seeds
What's more likely right now, Illinois going undefeated or Iowa not making the NCAA Tournament again? You make the call.
Midwest—1. Illinois, 2. Oklahoma State, 3. Alabama, 4. Villanova
(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.)