So far we're two-for-two in the Wayne Morgan era.
Last year we correctly pegged Iowa State's 16-11 regular season record in this space's preseason prediction for 2003-04. Last fall we said the Cyclones would finish 9-7 in the Big 12 and 18-9 overall this season. We missed that projection by just one game.
So what does that have to do with this weekend's column? Absolutely nothing, but considering how often my predictions don't come to fruition I just felt compelled to give myself an online helmet sticker for getting one right.
We now resume our regularly scheduled column.
Assessing ISU's NCAA Tournament Chances
Probably the best way for me to address each of the questions pro or con regarding the Cyclones' NCAA Tournament resume is just to answer them on an individual basis. So here goes…
Is Iowa State now a lock for the NCAA Tournament?
The answer to this one is not quite. The Big 12 is one of the three toughest leagues in the country, and ISU can claim victories against the two teams that tied for the title, Oklahoma and Kansas. ISU also nabbed four conference road scalps this winter. Ironically, after going four years without a conference road game, it's ISU's road success this season that is the most impressive item on its resume.
Then is the Big 12 Tournament opener against Baylor a must win?
Yes, because if the Cyclones grab that one they can go ahead and make plans for their first NCAA Tournament in four years. There's no drama come Selection Sunday. Heck, there's probably not any drama now, but if they suffer another brain-fart to a bottom-feeder that could provoke the Selection Committee to revisit previous bad losses like the one to Nebraska last week at home. It would give ISU losses to the worst four teams in the Big 12 this season, not exactly a notch you want on your bedpost.
This question falls for the faulty premise that the Selection Committee will be hesitant to take six teams from the Big 12 because it keeps track of how many teams it takes from each league. The same folks who believe in this unproven theory (such as ESPN's Digger Phelps) asserted that last year we'd never see just three teams from the Big Ten get in no matter what objective criteria was used. Yet that's exactly what happened. I can't find a single example of the Selection Committee ever slighting a team because it felt its conference was already too well-represented in the Field. Texas' victory actually raises ISU's profile, since the Cyclones beat them in Austin. That gives the Cyclones another quality victory against a team in the top 50 of the RPI. The Longhorns winning in Stillwater doesn't hurt ISU, it hurts fellow bubble teams like West Virginia, Notre Dame, Georgetown, UAB, Vanderbilt, Texas A&M, and Wichita State.
What's the best seed ISU could hope for in the NCAA Tournament?
Well, if the Cyclones were to shock the world and win four games in four days in Kansas City they could conceivably be a five or a six seed. If they beat Baylor and then lose to Texas Tech in the quarterfinals, you're probably looking at a nine or a 10 seed, and the 10 seed is preferable in this instance. If they win two games in Kansas City, you're probably looking at a tough eight-nine seed first round matchup in the NCAAs. Three Big 12 Tournament wins might get ISU a seven seed.
Come on, we're ISU fans. We're used to getting our hearts ripped out of our chest when we least expect it. So how could we be blindsided by being be left out of the NCAA Tournament beyond the scenario you already talked about?
If ISU beats Baylor on Thursday afternoon the only way it misses the NCAA Tournament is if Selection Committee Chairman Bob Bowlsby calls for a hit on the Cyclones in order to throw a bone to a home front frustrated with another frustrating season. But that's not going to happen. Say what you want about the University of Iowa, but its brash and effective athletic director has always been known as an honorable man.
Projecting the NCAA Tournament
Coming up with a mock bracket for laypeople like myself has become more difficult in this era of the pod system. I used to really enjoy seeding and placing the teams for fun before the Selection Committee had its say, but with the pod and the new RPI there's no need to even pretend like I know what I'm doing.
Instead, I'll go conference-by-conference and project which teams I think will make it and which teams I think won't and why. Then next week we can back and review my picks so we can all have a big laugh.
America East (1: Vermont)—No mid-major has been more dissected and discussed courtesy of the new RPI formula than has been Vermont. The Catamounts will host the conference tournament final on its own home floor on Saturday, when it faces second-seeded Northeastern. I think Vermont is in no matter what because I think the Selection Committee will use Vermont as a test-case for its new RPI. However, the Catamounts will win the title at home to cease any debate about its at-large resume.
ACC (5: North Carolina, Wake Forest, Duke, Georgia Tech, Maryland)—The first four are locks, but the Terps are the wildcard. We're gambling here that Gary Williams rallies his team for a win or two in the conference tournament this weekend, and that Virginia Tech doesn't. The Hokies just beat Maryland, but the computers (both new and old) aren't that impressed with their .500 record in the league because of a soft non-conference portfolio. League could get six teams if both Maryland and Virginia Tech – or dark horses like Miami (Fla.) and N.C. State – play their win in this weekend at the ACC Tournament.
Atlantic Sun (1: Central Florida)—The Knights have already clinched the league's automatic bid.
Atlantic 10 (1: St. Joseph's)—For years this was one of the nation's most underrated leagues, but this season it's experiencing a downer. The Redhawks clinched the regular season title for the second straight year, but they have mediocre at best computer numbers for an at-large berth. Halfway through the season it would've seemed unthinkable for George Washington not to be in, but that's going to happen if the Colonials don't win the A-10 Tournament.
Big East (6: Boston College, Connecticut, Villanova, Syracuse, Pittsburgh, Notre Dame)—The first five are locks, but the Fighting Irish are the wildcard. They had a chance on Saturday to cement a bid, but lost at home to Pittsburgh. Ditto for fellow conference bubble teams Georgetown and West Virginia. Likely whichever of those three make it furthest in the Big East Tournament will get the conference a sixth bid, and we're guessing that will be Notre Dame.
Big Sky (1: Portland State)—Portland State is the top seed in the conference tournament this week, which is in Portland.
Big South (1: Winthrop)—After a two year hiatus, the Eagles return to their customary spot in the NCAA Tournament field by winning the conference tournament.
Big Ten (5: Illinois, Michigan State, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Indiana)—The first three are locks, Minnesota is a pretty good bet as a team with 20 and 10, and the Hoosiers are the wildcard. They open the Big Ten Tournament against the Gophers on Friday. If they win there, and they will because Mike Davis always wins when his back is against the wall, they're in. If they don't, they're not. A sixth bid is possible if Iowa gets to the finals of the Big Ten Tournament.
Big 12 (6: Kansas, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, Texas Tech, Texas, Iowa State)—The first five are locks, and the only reason the Cyclones aren't is because we don't want to jinx them before they face Baylor. So what about Texas A&M? The Aggies have no quality road wins and their best non-conference win was against Big Ten cellar-dweller Penn State. They need to make the finals of the Big 12 Tournament, and that's not likely to happen.
Big West (1: Pacific)—There will be a lot of Pacific fans this week in places like Morgantown, South Bend, and Wichita. The Tigers are in no matter what, so if they don't win the conference tournament that will burst somebody else's bubble by giving this league an extra bid.
CAAC (1: Old Dominion)—Should the Monarchs lose tonight in the finals of the conference tournament they would create a very real dilemma for the Selection Committee and its new RPI. The computer numbers look good, although the strength of schedule is just 229th despite eight wins against teams in the top 100 of the RPI.
Conference USA (4: Louisville, Cincinnati, Charlotte, DePaul)—You'll notice UAB with its 20 wins isn't here, and that's because we project the Blazers losing to DePaul in the quarterfinals of the conference tournament; a de factor play-in game. UAB has just one win against teams in the top 50 of the RPI, so it has some work to do this weekend.
Horizon League (1: Wisconsin-Milwaukee)—Only one bid for this league, despite Wisconsin-Milwaukee's 23 wins. It hosts Detroit in the conference tournament final on Tuesday at home.
Ivy (1: Penn)—The Quakers have already clinched the league title in the lone conference left that doesn't use a tournament to award its automatic bid.
MAAC (1: Niagara)—The Purple Eagles are the top seed heading into tonight's conference tournament finale against Rider. A victory gives them the automatic bid and 20 wins on the season.
MAC (2: Miami University, Buffalo)—Quite simply, I am projecting that these two teams make it to the finals of the conference tournament. Kent State could jump in the mix, too. Actually, Western Michigan might be the best team in the conference, and prove it by capturing the automatic bid.
Mid-Continent (1: Valparaiso)—Oral Roberts is the regular season champion, but we're projecting they get beat by perennial March Madness darling Valparaiso in the tournament final on Tuesday.
MEAC (1: Coppin State)—Delaware State is the regular season champion, but we'll project the Eagles as the recipients of the automatic bid because of their tradition.
Missouri Valley (3: Southern Illinois, Creighton, Wichita State)—The first two teams are already in. The Salukis are the regular season champs of one of the toughest mid-major leagues ever, and the computers love them. The Bluejays have 22 wins, three wins over Wichita State, two wins over Northern Iowa, and are in the tournament finals tonight. The third bid is tricky. Should Creighton win tonight, we're guessing the Shockers will be one of the last at-large teams in. If SW Missouri State wins the tournament, they're obviously the league's third bid with the automatic and the Shockers go back to the NIT again. The Panthers were probably in before a crushing loss to the Bears in the MVC quarterfinals on Saturday. How about an opening round NIT rematch with the Hawkeyes?
Mountain West (2: Utah, New Mexico)—The Utes are in regardless of what happens in the conference tournament. We project the Lobos will play their way in this weekend with a couple of wins, giving them a very noticeable 25.
Northeast (1: Long Island)—This league has already seen a few upsets in its tournament. Fourth-seeded Long Island is hosting the championship game on Wednesday night on campus.
Ohio Valley (1: Eastern Kentucky): Eastern Kentucky clinched the league's automatic berth by winning the conference tournament.
Patriot (1: Holy Cross)—The new RPI is infatuated with the Crusaders, despite the fact all but three of their wins are against teams outside the top 100 of its ratings. That's why Holy Cross needs to beat second-seeded Bucknell for the automatic bid on Friday night at home in the conference tournament finals.
SEC (5: Kentucky, Alabama, Florida, LSU, Mississippi State)—All five of these schools are locks. The only drama surrounds Vanderbilt, but the Commodores probably need to make it to the finals of the conference tournament to create some suspense.
Southern (1: Chattanooga)—After two straight near-misses the Moccasins advance to the NCAA Tournament via automatic bid thanks to winning the conference tournament. By the way, Davidson won the regular season title with a 16-0 conference record, but likely won't get an at-large berth after losing in the semis of the conference tournament.
Southland (1: Southeastern Louisiana)—Hosts the conference tournament this weekend as the number one seed.
SWAC (1: Alabama A&M)—Hosts the conference tournament this weekend as the number one seed.
Sun Belt (1: Western Kentucky)—We're projecting the Hilltoppers as conference tournament champs, although the field here is wide open. This so-so league's prominence in the new RPI is proof of its unreliability.
West Coast (2: Gonzaga, St. Mary's)—Folks in Wichita, South Bend, Albuquerque, and El Paso were sweating out Santa Clara's hosting of the conference tournament, until the Bulldogs were beaten by St. Mary's in the semis.
WAC (2: Nevada, UTEP)—The Wolfpack are already in the field, while the Miners have some work to do in the conference tournament because of two non-Division I wins. UTEP could get the final at-large berth awarded.
Sweet 16 Seeds
My final projection of which teams I think will be the top seeds in the NCAA Tournament come Selection Sunday.
East—1. North Carolina, 2. Boston College, 3. Oklahoma State, 4. Washington
West—1. Kansas, 2. Kentucky, 3. Louisville, 4. Michigan State
Midwest—1. Illinois, 2. Duke, 3. Oklahoma, 4. Gonzaga
South—1. Wake Forest, 2. Arizona, 3. Connecticut, 4. Alabama
Check out our Big 12 Tournament coverage
Our very own Bill Seals will be in Kansas City this week covering both the ISU men's and women's quests for Big 12 Tournament titles. If you're one of the multitude of Cyclone Nation residents heading south for the glorious return of the tournament to its rightful home make sure to say hi to Bill. Otherwise you can stay home like I have to and follow all of his great coverage here at CycloneNation.com.
(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.)