The season came to an end courtesy of mighty North Carolina, just as I suspected it would. The Tar Heels have better players, more of them at their disposal, have perhaps a Hall of Fame coach, and were virtually playing at home. Beyond that, Iowa State was in good shape.
The Cyclones simply lost to a vastly superior team uniquely equipped to handle ISU's pesky defensive packages and up-tempo approach. However, the weekend wasn't a total loss. ISU won its first NCAA Tournament game in five years and got some valuable championship experience for a roster that returns four of its top six players next season. And don't forget this was the first NCAA Tournament exposure for this coaching staff as well.
Then there's Jared Homan, who is a testimony to collegiate perserverance. He arrived at ISU as an even less than unheralded recruit, worked his way towards respectability, overcame some self-inflicted wounds off the court, and probably played his way into being drafted by the NBA pending his performance in the various offseason scouting camps. He's a true Iowa success story, and it's great to see him get a shot at the big time and later on the big money.
Don't let the tar-and-feathering courtesy of the Tar Heels leave a bad taste in your mouths about the season. For a team playing with a six-man rotation that was once 0-5 in the Big 12 Conference this season was a definite success despite the woodshed beating that ended it.
Back to the Future
Here's what we forecasted back in the November issue of CN Magazine, which was our men's basketball season. Postseason analysis on each point is included.
1. The quickest, deepest ISU basketball team in recent memory.
It's the great dilemma for every coach: would you rather have talent or experience because you rarely have both? Such is the case this season for Iowa State Coach Wayne Morgan, who will put the second-least experienced basketball team in the Big 12 Conference on the floor this season. However, Morgan probably wouldn't trade rosters with three-fourths of the conference. He's got a much deeper, athletic, and versatile team than he did during his maiden voyage in Ames. Now that John Neal has a full-ride, Morgan has 11 scholarship players at his disposal, and all of them can play. Last season he didn't have a true slasher on the roster, now he has two in newcomers Anthony Davis and Rahshon Clark. Morgan can go small and quick with three or even four-guard sets or he can bulk up with numerous big bodies. There will be growing pains, for sure, but few teams on their schedule will be more athletic than the Cyclones.
This may have been the quickest ISU team we've seen, as folks like Gary Thompson attest, but it certainly wasn't the deepest. Instead of 11 scholarships at his disposal, Morgan ended up with 61/2. He did find a true slasher in Rahshon Clark, but unfortunately Anthony Davis' shoulder kept him out most of the season. My guess is that we'll be calling next year's team the deepest, most athletic ISU basketball team in recent memory as well.
2. More pressure defense.
Lost in all the talk about last season's stellar home-record, poor road-record, mythical state championship and postseason NIT run was the fact this team played some fairly solid defense when it applied itself. Only six teams shot 50 percent or better against the Cyclones, who also averaged over eight steals a game, last season. And that team was just learning the zone defense and playing shorthanded from an athletic standpoint. This will be year two in Wayne Morgan's system, and he'll have more thoroughbreds in the stable to deploy in an effort to frustrate the opposition. ISU forced turnovers better than it had in 10 years last season, expect that trend to continue.
Indeed, this was as good of a defensive team as ISU has ever had, albeit in stark contrast to the tenacious man-to-man Cyclone Nation had grown accustomed to under Tim Floyd and Larry Eustachy. And it's only going to get better with more depth and another 15 pounds on Clark, who is the point man of the defensive scheme.
3. Outside shooting will be a telling factor.
How much will Jake Sullivan's marksmanship be missed? ISU's most prolific three-point shooter ever, Sullivan's 82 triples last season were more than double the number made by Will Blalock, who finished second on the team with 30. Right now, there doesn't appear to be one single player ready to assume Sullivan's perimeter load, but that doesn't mean this still couldn't be a dangerous team beyond the arc. John Neal has the stroke, he just needs more minutes. Tasheed Carr worked hard on his perimeter shooting before suffering his hip injury. Blalock was a solid 43.5 percent from long distance as a freshman, and he'll get more opportunities this winter. And knowing Curtis Stinson and his competitive nature, we're betting he worked hard on improving his range during the offseason. Yet until it proves otherwise opponents will dare ISU to beat them from the outside without Jake.
In every game ISU lost this season you could pinpoint two chief statistical culprits: rebounding and three-point shooting. The Cyclones were the worst perimeter team in the Big 12. Blalock and Neal both had terrible shooting years beyond the arc while Stinson showed no marked improvement from last season (although a torn ligament in his finger could be a major reason why). Carr was easily the best long-range marksman, and if he had an off night from the outside so did the Cyclones.
4. Tasheed Carr is the newcomer that will make the biggest impact.
Rahshon Clark and Anthony Davis could be the slashers on the wing ISU has lacked recently. Aaron Agnew, the behemoth, and Robert Faulkner, a highly regarded JUCO, could provide needed size up front. Yet it's Carr who adds the most intrigue because of his versatility. He played point guard for one of the top prep school programs in the country, and presents matchup problems with his size as well. He could free up Stinson and Blalock to concentrate more on scoring, and less on facilitating—if he's fully recovered from that dislocated hip.
Clark was brilliant defensively and a force on the fast break, but Carr was clearly the missing cog in the machine for the Cyclones because he was the only player on the roster who could legitimately extend the opponent's defense. His breakout game came at Texas, which was the breakout road win that was the catalyst to the Cyclones' rebound. No ISU player improved more as the season wore on, especially on defense.
5. John Neal will be the most improved player.
The former walk-on from Winterset attained cult status with his star-is-born performance that lifted the Cyclones over Iowa in the waning moments back in January. Now he's on scholarship, and with Jake Sullivan gone there is room for a sharpshooter. Word leaked out during preseason workouts the junior is ready to assume that role and more.
Uh, whoops. In hindsight it appears way too much pressure and attention was paid to this young man. It has to be hard to make a shot when everybody yells "shoot" every time you touch the ball. A year in obscurity could be just what the doctor ordered.
6. The conference road-losing streak FINALLY ends.
It's 25 and counting for the dubious streak which must not be named. Is it unfair to attribute this streak to a program under new leadership and utilizing new personnel? Sure it is but that's life in the big city. Unfortunately, the misery is likely to last well into 2005. But rest assured, just when it looks bleak after the streak reaches 31 straight ISU will close out the season with two straight road wins at Texas A&M and Colorado.
We got this one half-right. ISU did end the streak, but quicker than we figured down in Austin thanks to a near-record overtime eruption. Ironically, after suffering through a presidential term of road woes it was the quality road wins that propelled the Cyclones to an at-large berth in the NCAA Tournament.
7. Survive January, thrive in February
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.
This turned out to be the blueprint for the Cyclones, who were just 1-6 in January but 6-2 in February.
8. A second straight winning season under Wayne Morgan.
Last season Wayne Morgan joined Tim Floyd as the only rookie coaches at ISU to post a winning record since 1960. This season Morgan will join Floyd again to become just the second ISU head coach in 45 years to post winning records in his first two seasons at the helm.
And a year from now Morgan will join Floyd as the only ISU head coaches to finish with winning records in their first three seasons at the helm.
9. The first NCAA Tournament berth in four years.
This team will be better than the prognosticators think. It's athletic, deep, and versatile. Plus, the early schedule has the right mix of marquee matchups and creampuff wins. Last year in this space we were dead on in predicting ISU's eventual record. Since we're optimistic, let's hope we're right again. With a conference record of 9-7 and 19-9 overall, to go along with two wins in the Big 12 Tournament, the Cyclones get an at-large invitation to the Big Dance.
We were darn close on this one. We only missed the Cyclones' regular season record by one game. But it turns out the prognosticators were also high on the Cyclones. Many of the preseason magazines projected the Cyclones into the Field of 65 and will probably do so again next fall.
10. Curtis Stinson won't play his final game in an ISU uniform.
Call this a hunch, but with a top recruiting class on the way next season – to go along with the return of nine of this season's top 11 players – ISU's All-American in-waiting will forego the NBA for one more season for a shot at the Big 12 title in 2005-06.
Stinson will be back next season, after a four-month rehab stint following surgery to repair the dislodged ligament on his finger. And the Cyclones will contend for the Big 12 title next season as well, although everyone will be chasing defending co-champion Oklahoma.
Why do I persist on donating hard-earned money to novices each month in the various March Madness pools I enter? These scams are never profitable, but instead quite humbling.
In fact, this year I could possibly have the worst record I've ever posted. And no, I'm not one of those guys (and you know who you are) who submit multiple brackets. I'm a one woman and a one-bracket man. A man of integrity, not a man of multiple choice.
Of course, those that do submit multiple brackets will be spending some of my money here in about two weeks.
How does your bracket look? Better than mine I'm guessing.
Spring Practice Starts Wednesday
Preparations for the most anticipated ISU football season perhaps ever officially begins Wednesday. As has been the case in years past, you can count on CycloneNation.com to provide subscribers same-day coverage of each practice session. If you need a spring football refresher, here's a few tidbits to get you up to speed that we posted on our premium board just over a week ago:
- By now most of you know that Austin Flynn has switched from wide receiver to quarterback. This is not intended to be a temporary move. In fact, we've been told he will spend all of his time there this spring. Conversely, the same is also true of Terrance Highsmith's switch from wideout to quarterback. About the only thing that would move Flynn back to quarterback would be if Highsmith doesn't show he's good enough to spell Bret Meyer if called upon.
- There are a whopping 18 offensive linemen on scholarship this spring, so obviously it's put up or shut up time for several players at that position.
- Tony Yelk is healthy and ready to go right from the outset of spring ball.
- Scott Stephenson's shoulder injury is coming along and he should be available for at least a part of spring practice.
- Look for ISU to stick with the same process of naming captains and team leaders that worked last season. There will be no captains named this spring. Instead the coaches will allow that process to develop over the summer. However, we're also told that you could see an underclassman or two named captains in the fall.
- Young players to watch this spring include former walk-on quarterback Tyler Lorenzen at tight end, R.J. Sumrall (may have the best hands in the program and almost didn't redshirt last year), Greg Coleman (moving back to tailback), Jason Scales (footspeed is improved), Matt Scherbring (looks good so far switching from defense to offense), Kurtis Taylor (one little birdie is really excited about him), Adam Carper (our birdies have been raving about him since he arrived on campus), and Travis Ferguson (described as a potentially "special" player).
- Right now ABC is trying to balance three games for national broadcasts on September 10th: Texas @ Ohio State (which has bee slotted for primetime), Notre Dame @ Michigan, and Iowa @ Iowa State. Obviously our favorite local rivalry has entered into some elite company in 2005.
- Spring practice will be re-opened to the public this year after last year's
secrecy. However, don't be surprised to see a scrimmage or two closed if
(Steve Deace can be heard on the radio in Iowa each weekday from 3-6 p.m. on 1460-KXNO, the flagship of the Cyclone Radio Network.)