Saturday was a very special day for the Iowa State men's basketball program. Past meant present, and the storylines seem to be starting to parallel one another, and hopefully with the same outcome.
With the 1984-85 squad that snapped a 41-year NCAA Tournament drought in attendance for its 20th-year reunion, the Cyclones overcame an early 21-6 deficit to beat Texas Tech before a sellout crowd at Hilton Coliseum, its third vanquishing of a ranked team in the last 21 days.
ISU's domination of the latter stages of this game was so complete that the normally ornery Bob Knight sat stoically on the sidelines while his team was being unraveled. ISU's turnaround from the early hole it dug itself was so sudden that the sixth man of Hilton Magic was rarely called upon. Five Cyclones scored in double figures, as opposed to two Red Raiders. ISU won the rebounding battle, controlled the battle in the paint again, and ran a rather athletic foe right off the floor by forcing them to turn it over more than they had so far in Big 12 play.
All of a sudden ISU is back to .500 in conference play and 13-8 overall. Let the NCAA Tournament talk begin, right? We'll address that a little later.
There is some intriguing linkage between the team honored at halftime on Saturday and the team honored in the post-game victory celebration.
When Johnny Orr arrived in Ames he inherited a vast wasteland known as ISU basketball. The Cyclones had finished with just eight winning seasons in the previous 20 years and had accumulated just 47 wins combined in the five seasons leading up to his hiring. ISU had never had a 20-win season. ISU hadn't won in Iowa City since 1921.
Orr came from a championship program at Michigan, which he had built into a national power. He was just four years removed from a National Championship Game appearance. Just three years removed from finishing the regular season as the top-ranked team in the country. Why in the world would he leave Ann Arbor for arguably the worst program in the Big 8?
Orr told me last week on the radio that he left Michigan for two reasons: money and the people at Iowa State. However, the money wasn't enough to make him take over such a losing proposition. Orr said he originally wasn't going to take the job because he didn't think he could stand the losing. However, his wife convinced him if he liked the people better it was a better job and he should take it, so he did.
Most pundits at the time believed Orr was going out to pasture early. He had no instate recruiting base, and even if he did he wasn't in a state with a lot of talent to begin with. So he had to go back to his old stomping grounds to search for talent, that would be the talent-rich state of Michigan. That obviously turned out well, as the ISU record book attests. But that wasn't enough, he also needed a little luck, which he received in the form of a walk-on he originally tried to pass on that turned out to be too good to be true. That walk-on turned out to be Jeff Hornacek, and the rest is history, as they say.
Lo and behold, a program was born. From that seed sprouted Hilton Magic, regular invites to The Big Dance, and the championship eras of Tim Floyd and Larry Eustachy. Iowa State had become the college basketball force in the state of Iowa.
Fast forward to present-day Cyclone hoops and you see some similarities.
Wayne Morgan came to Iowa State with no ties to the area, just like Johnny. He spent most of his coaching career at a national program, just like Johnny, as an assistant at Syracuse. So, just like Johnny, he decided to go back to his old stomping grounds – in the case the East Coast – to recruit. Enter Curtis Stinson, Will Blalock, Tasheed Carr, and Rahshon Clark.
When Morgan took the job the program was in the worst shape it had been in since Orr took over. ISU was desperate to put the Eustachy fiasco behind it. It opened up a coaching search, but the man they may have really wanted – Creighton's Dana Altman – wasn't interested. Others that were interested, like Wyoming's Steve McClain, were vetted and considered not to be a good fit for ISU. That left Morgan, who took over a roster replete with off-court issues. The day Morgan was hired he had four starters dealing with either behavioral or academic issues, and had to re-convince the recruiting class to head to Ames. Then there was on the on-again-off-again-on-again Adam Haluska transfer.
Nobody thought he was going to win at ISU anytime soon, and many folks thought he was doomed to fail, just like Johnny a generation before him.
Because of the solid footing that had been established 25 years ago, it didn't take Morgan five years to make the Cyclones winners. In fact, he won 20 games in his first season at the helm despite anemic preseason expectations. This season his team has surged to the first division of the Big 12 after a terrible start and fans are realistically hoping for their first NCAA Tournament berth in four years. Of course, like Johnny got lucky with Hornacek so did Morgan hit the jackpot with Jared Homan. Morgan inherited the pet project of Eustachy and his former assistant Steve Barnes, just as he was ready to blossom into one of the best big men in the Big 12.
Don't get me wrong, Morgan has a long ways to go – like qualifying for his first NCAA Tournament – before he gets a banner in the Hilton rafters next to the one unveiled for Orr on Saturday. Yet history has a strange way of repeating itself, doesn't it? Besides, there already is one common denominator between the two eras, and that's the quality people that attracted Orr to Ames in the first place.
Cyclones on the NCAA Tournament bubble?
Alright, so what is it going to take for Iowa State to hear its name called on Selection Sunday, which is four weeks from yesterday?
According to my buddy Jerry Palm at CollegeRPI.com, the Cyclones rank 71st in the latest vital Ratings Percentage Index. Now we can go back and forth on how much of a role the RPI plays in the selection process, but it's useless because emotion is involved. The RPI is like political tracking polls, you like them when they say what you want but you're quick to discredit them when they don't.
Different Selection Committee chairmen have said different things about the RPI's importance of the years, and current chair Bob Bowlsby certainly has his own opinion. However, the numbers don't lie. In the last 13 years just six teams with RPI ratings outside the top 50 earned at-large berths, and almost all of those were regular season conference champions that lost in their conference tournaments. The highest RPI to ever earn an at-large bid was New Mexico at 66th. Thus, it's easy to see that ISU has some work to do here. And that work will be difficult with just one game remaining against an opponent currently in the top 50 of the RPI.
My best guess: the Cyclones need to go 10-6 in the league or get to 20 wins to assure themselves an at-large berth. A conference record of 9-7 gets them in the conversation, but that may not be good enough because of the strength of the mid-major conferences this season.
Less than a month before Selection Sunday, here's how things break down conference by conference…
America East—At this point Vermont is in no matter what while Boston University is a solid bubble team. Projected bids: 2
Atlantic 10—St. Joseph's has the best conference record, but an RPI of 99 means they need to win the league tournament to get in. Ditto for Dayton. If George Washington wins the league tournament that could mean just one bid for this league. Projected bids: 2
ACC—Five bids seem like locks, including Georgia Tech, which will get a pass from the committee for its inconsistent play because of the injury to B.J. Elder earlier this season. Miami has a better conference record than the Yellow Jackets, but probably still has a little more work to do. Projected bids: 6
Atlantic Sun—Gardner-Webb is the first place team right now. Projected bids: 1
Big 12—This is the most fluid league in the country. At this point, only Kansas Oklahoma State, and Oklahoma – despite a four-game slide – appear to be locks. Texas is sliding and in danger of being passed in the RPI by Colorado. Texas Tech would probably be in if the bids went out today, but the Red Raiders still have games remaining against the Jayhawks, Cowboys, Sooners, and Longhorns. Projected bids: 5
Big East—As many as seven teams in this league would get bids if this were Selection Sunday, so top to bottom this could be the strongest conference in America. How tough is the Big East? Well, Villanova is in 7th place but has an RPI of 19. Projected bids: 7
Big Sky—Portland State is the first place team in the league right now. Projected bids: 1
Big South—Winthrop is the first place team in the league right now. Projected bids: 1
Big Ten—Minnesota's two losses last week, and Iowa's recent slump, probably means just three teams from this once-mighty league get bids for the second straight year. Ohio State would be on the bubble but is serving a self-imposed postseason ban. Projected bids: 3
Big West—Pacific is the first place team in the league right now, but watch out for perennial contender Utah State in the conference tournament. Should Pacific get upset, it's likely still in as an at-large with a solid RPI of 25. Projected bids: 1
Colonial—Old Dominion is the first place team in the league right now, but should it get upset in the conference tournament it would likely receive an at-large berth with an RPI of 28. Projected bids: 1
Conference USA—Louisville, Charlotte, Cincinnati, and DePaul are locks as of now. But Memphis and UAB could be spoilers since they're capable of winning the conference tournaments but unlikely at-large berth recipients because of the RPI. Projected bids: 4
Horizon—Wisconsin-Milwaukee is the first place team in the league right now. Projected bids: 1
Ivy—Pennsylvania is the first place team in the league right now. Projected bids: 1
Metro Atlantic—Niagara is the first place team in the league right now. Projected bids: 1
Mid-Continent—Oral Roberts is the first place team in the league right now. Projected bids: 1
Mid-American—Kent State and Miami University are likely in regardless with top-40 RPIs, but Western Michigan and Bowling Green are capable of winning the conference tournament and giving the league three bids. Projected bids: 3
Mid-Eastern—Coppin State is the first place team in the league with a losing overall record. Projected bids: 1
Missouri Valley—Wichita State and Southern Illinois are definitely in regardless with top-30 RPIs, but several other solid clubs – like Northern Iowa – could play spoiler in the league tournament giving the conference three bids. Projected bids: 2
Mountain West—Utah is the first place team in the league right now. However, an upset in the conference tournament would mean a second bid for this league. Projected bids: 1
Northeast—Monmouth is the first place team in the league right now. Projected bids: 1
Ohio Valley—Samford is the first place team in the league right now. Projected bids: 1
Patriot—Holy Cross is the first place team in the league right now, but an upset to underrated Bucknell could create a dilemma for the Selection Committee since the Crusaders are 38th in the RPI. Projected bids: 1
SEC—Four bids are locks. A fifth could go to LSU if it finishes strong. Projected bids: 5
Southern—Davidson is the first place team in the league right now. Projected bids: 1
Southland—Southeastern Louisiana is the first place team in the league right now. Projected bids: 1
Southwestern—Alabama A&M is the first place team in the league right now. Projected bids: 1
Sun Belt—Western Kentucky and Louisiana-Lafayette are each in the top 50 of the RPI, and if both make the finals of the conference tournament both could get bids regardless of the outcome. Projected bids: 2
West Coast—Gonzaga is a lock, while St. Mary's is close to becoming one. If Santa Clara, which beat North Carolina earlier this year, wins the conference tournament this league will likely get three bids. Projected bids: 2
We'll update this listing again in two weeks.
Sweet 16 Seeds
These would be the top seeds if today were Selection Sunday, and this week I will remember to include Kansas!
West—1. Kansas, 2. Arizona, 3. Syracuse, 4. Gonzaga
East—1. Boston College, 2. North Carolina, 3. Wisconsin, 4. Alabama
South—1. Wake Forest, 2. Oklahoma St., 3. Kentucky, 4. Michigan St.
Midwest—1. Illinois, 2. Duke, 3. Washington, 4. Louisville
(Publisher 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.)