It is a Big Monday indeed for the Iowa State men's basketball program.
Tonight, not quite as mighty as we originally thought Kansas visits what is sure to be a rocking Hilton Coliseum. It is a key game for the Cyclones as well as a barometer for the Big 12 race.
The Jayhawks will be without the services Wayne Simien, who is out indefinitely with a separated shoulder. They're also without All-American Drew Gooden, who left school early for the NBA draft. It turns out Kansas misses Gooden's services much more than any of the preseason prognosticators originally thought.
Still, despite three early non-conference losses, this is the best team the Cyclones have faced thus far.
The Jayhawks are the conference measuring stick. Three years ago, we really didn't know Iowa State was for real until they won at Phog Allen. Last year, despite a depleted roster, the Cyclones played arguably their best game of the season against Kansas.
You know Larry Eustachy will have them ready.
The game presents several intriguing matchups. Both teams feature three-guard offenses. Both teams feature ultra-quick point guards. Both teams feature gutsy leaders at the off-guard position. Both programs pride themselves on in-your-face defense.
The difference in this game could be someone who won't even be suiting up. The Jayhawks can expect to be severely handicapped without Wayne Simien's 15.9 points per game. The sophomore big man is out indefinitely with a separated shoulder and his absence will be felt.
Meanwhile, a another big man is emerging for Iowa State. Newcomer Chris Alexander, whose off the court troubles have been "well-documented" as Eustachy likes to say, has been a spark and exploded for 25 points in the last game against Arkansas-Pine Bluff. Yes, I know that's not exactly stellar competition, but it's not bad for a young man with issues playing just his third Division I-A game.
Prediction: Iowa State 82, Kansas 75.
Staying on the topic of men's basketball, tonight's game is probably a must-win if the Cyclones are going to emerge as contenders in the rugged Big 12. ISU's first four conference games – Kansas, at Texas, Oklahoma, at Missouri – are all against ranked foes. Then, following a breather against Nebraska, it's a road trip to Stillwater for a tussle with Oklahoma State.
If Iowa State can somehow survive that brutal six-game stretch to open the conference season with its confidence, health, and psyche intact then it could be a major factor down the stretch. The final 10 games on the schedule feature only one road contest (at Kansas) against a league contender.
Due to the sparkling 10-1 start and mythical state championship, we here at Cyclone Nation™ have decided to revise our somewhat conservative preseason predictions. We now say the Cyclones finish 10-6 in the Big 12 and 20-7 overall.
See you at the NCAA Tournament.
Now to football, which concluded its 2002 season in fitting fashion in the Humanitarian Bowl. Yet again the Cyclones were unable to win a game outside of the state of Iowa. Yet again the Cyclones were unable to put together four solid quarters of mistake-free football together against a ranked opponent on the road. Yet again the Cyclones failed to play with passion and purpose for a full 60 minutes.
It's going to be an interesting offseason, and the program is somewhat at a crossroads. Cyclone faithful watched intently while the despised in-state rival they've dominated on the field the last five years dominated the headlines and All-American teams with its special season.
My guess is that has many in the Cardinal-and-Gold crowd wanting more as well. My guess is the prospect of another trip to anything short of the Big 12's "money bowls" next season will be looked at as a disappointment by some fans.
The talent is there next season to be a post-season contender again. The schedule is there next season to be a post-season spoiler again as well. All of the juggernauts Iowa State faced away from the friendly confines this fall travel to Jack Trice Stadium next autumn. Plus, there's road games at smarting Nebraska (where the Cyclones never win), improving Missouri (where Iowa State barely escaped with a victory two years ago), and Lubbock to face pass-happy Texas Tech.
As long as Dan McCarney is here in Ames, the program will never slide back into oblivion. But asking Mac to make a BCS bowl is nearly impossible given the makeup of the Big 12. Heck, even making the "money bowls" (Cotton, Holiday, and Alamo) will be a chore. There simply isn't a lot of room for upward mobility in the league.
Not with Kansas State, Oklahoma, and Texas still operating at maximum efficiency. Colorado will always be good as long as Gary Barnett is there. Les Miles has the Oklahoma State program thinking big now after two straight wins over the Sooners and its first bowl win since Barry Sanders wore orange-and-black. You know Texas A&M will become a major force with the addition of Dennis Franchione. You can't expect a program with Nebraska's tradition and facilities to fall off the face of the Earth, either. And Missouri has a bonafide star in quarterback Brad Smith, who is just a redshirt freshman.
Given the schedule, and the graduation of Seneca Wallace, seven wins seems like a worthy goal for next season as well. However, I think some tweaking must be done for that to happen. When your final two losses are against Connecticut and Boise State, you can't afford to not make any changes. And knowing Mac, I fully don't expect him to stand pat.
Here are five things I think need to be done between now and the August 30th opener against Northern Iowa:
- Conditioning. This team simply must get stronger. Especially up front at the point of attack, which includes the offensive and defensive lines. According to Mac, 63 players need to get bigger and stronger this offseason. Obviously ISU's strength-and-conditioning program isn't the problem. Coach Matt McGettigan was the S&C National Coach of the Year in 2001. Therefore, the onus falls on the players.
- Find a running back that can break tackles. Paging Stevie Hicks, paging Stevie Hicks. I can't wait to watch the highly touted redshirt freshman in the spring. Mac has been very open about how competitive the tailback position will be with Hicks in the fold.
- Improve against man-to-man coverage. Observers close to the program say this is the best group of receivers the school has arguably ever had, and the entire group returns next season. Plus, redshirt freshman Jon Davis – who was the talk of last spring practice – joins the fray. However, we have consistently seen the ISU offense struggle against teams who play tight, man-to-man coverage for two seasons now despite the presence of Seneca Wallace at quarterback. Whatever the issue is here – scheme, strength, or quickness – needs to be addressed before Oklahoma, Texas, and Kansas State come calling on the Cyclones again next fall.
- Further diversify offense. I disagree with many fans angry about the play-calling. Offensive coordinator Steve Brickey was hailed as a genius in September, remember? If you want to know why the offense seemed to lack imagination and execution at times, see above. A dominant offensive line goes a long way towards making a coach look smart, but I do think some tweaking is in order. For instance, the intermediate passing game seemed to be lacking at times, except against teams that played soft zone coverage like Iowa, Missouri, and Texas Tech. The screen pass wasn't exactly the play of choice for Cyclone fans in 2002. But if executed properly it can be a lethal weapon against aggressive defenses like the Cyclones face in the Big 12.
- Develop a quarterback. I liked what I saw out of Cris Love in spring practice two years ago, and he threw for over 200 yards against the first team defense in the 2002 spring game. However, practice observers have been raving about the prospects of redshirts Waye Terry and Austin Flynn. Terry is a junior college transfer who is athletic and has a strong arm. He's even played some wide receiver while on the scout team this year. Flynn made plays with his legs in high school. In fact, noted football recruiting analyst Tom Lemming told me Flynn was the best running quarterback in the nation two years ago. Better than Reggie McNeal at Texas A&M and Marcus Vick at Virginia Tech. Whoever takes the reins next August will face the pressure of replacing Wallace.
The Final Cyclone Nation™ Top 25 College Football Poll for 2002
1. Ohio State (14-0)
2. Miami, Fla. (12-1)
3. Georgia (13-1)
4. USC (11-2)
5. Oklahoma (11-2)
6. Iowa (11-2)
7. Texas (11-2)
8. Kansas State (11-2)
9. Washington State (10-3)
10. Michigan (10-3)
11. Alabama (10-3)
12. Maryland (11-3)
13. N.C. State (11-3)
14. Notre Dame (10-3)
15. Auburn (9-4)
16. Pittsburgh (9-4)
17. Penn State (9-4)
18. Boise State (12-1)
19. Virginia Tech (10-4)
20. Colorado (9-5)
21. TCU (10-2)
22. Florida State (9-5)
23. Virginia (9-5)
24. West Virginia (9-4)
25. Marshall (11-2)
VERY Preliminary Preseason Top 10 for 2003
Here's an extremely early look at the favorites for next season. For the record: ESPN's kiss-of-death Beano Cook has already predicted that Michigan will face Oklahoma next January 4th in the Sugar Bowl for the national championship. For the record again: Beano correctly pegged Ohio State for the Fiesta Bowl last winter, but his other pick (Tennessee) suffered a five-loss season for the first time since 1988.
1) Ohio State...Entire offense returns as well as several key pieces on that stellar defense. Safety Mike Doss was overrated this year, they'll miss DE Will Smith (whose leaving early for the NFL) more. Schedule features 8 home games with tough non-conference games against Washington and N.C. State the BCS computers will love.
2) Georgia...Returns best skill position talent (two-deep at nearly every position) in the nation and a great defensive line. However, standout offensive line graduates all five starters. Schedule is tough: road games at Clemson, LSU, Tennessee, and Georgia Tech.
3) Kansas State...Offensive backfield of QB Ell Roberson, RB Darren Sproles, and FB Aya Saba could be the best in college football. Defense will be tough again. Non-league schedule is a joke (of course), but conference road games at Texas and Oklahoma State will be toughies.
4) Michigan...Returns the top statistical QB in the Big Ten, leading rusher, leading receiver, four of five starters on OL, most of defensive front seven, and All-American cornerback in Marlin Jackson as well. Schedule (no Penn State and Wisconsin with Ohio State and Notre Dame coming to Ann Arbor) is a plus as well. If the kicking situation stabilizes the Wolverines will be a contender all season long.
5) Oklahoma...10 -- count 'em -- 10 starters on the Sooner defense return. If nobody goes pro early this could be one of the scariest units in modern college football history. Can Jason White rehab another knee injury in time to take over at quarterback? Who takes over for the underrated Quentin Griffin? There's also a strong non-conference schedule the computers will love (all bowl-eligible teams): North Texas, at Alabama, Fresno State, and UCLA. Toughest conference road game is at Colorado.
6) Florida State...Returns a ton of talent and plays in the championship-friendly ACC. Remember that since the BCS was formed the championship game has featured at least one team from the ACC and Big East every year. Since the Seminoles are unlikely to be challenged much in the conference, the schedule comes down to non-conference road dates with Notre Dame and Florida plus a home date with Miami.
7) Notre Dame...I'm not saying they deserve this, but they'll be up here anyway. Returns nearly everyone and Tyrone Willingham is loading up another great recruiting class. Rumors are swirling that dismissed tailback Julius Jones could return to school as well. Schedule includes seven bowl teams from 2002: Washington State, at Michigan, at Purdue, at Pittsburgh, USC, at Boston College, and Florida State.
8) LSU...A young team in '02 that could be a major factor in '03. Needs to settle on a quarterback, but has excellent talent returning everywhere else on offense (see Michael Clayton, Dominick Dunn, and LaBrandon Toefield). Defense was one of the best in the nation until it got torched by Texas and should be among the best in the SEC again. Non-conference schedule is manageable and SEC West contenders Auburn and Arkansas come to Baton Rouge, as do Florida and Georgia.
9) Miami (Fla.)...Hurricanes lose a ton, including their entire defensive line. It's also likely that All-American wideout Andre Johnson will go pro early. But this is Miami, which dominates the weaker Big East and recruits like a mutha. Florida transfer Brock Berlin takes over at QB and will take an immediate liking to TE Kellen Winslow. Can Willis McGahee rehab his devastating knee injury in time to even play in 2003? Will he even be missed with Frank Gore's return? Schedule is a chore again: road games at Pittsburgh, Virginia Tech, and Florida State with home dates against Tennessee, Florida, and West Virginia.
10) Auburn...Talk about teams returning great defenses, the Tigers could be the Ohio State of 2003; a team that comes from being ranked outside the top 10 to contending for the national title. Maybe only Oklahoma has a commiserate set of LBs. On offense, returns QB Jason Campbell and two-headed tailback monster of Carnell Williams and Ronnie Brown. However, the schedule could be a problem with road games at Georgia Tech, Arkansas, LSU, and Georgia.
Sleepers (in alphabetical order): Arkansas, N.C. State, Oklahoma State, Oregon State, Pittsburgh, Purdue, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia, Virginia Tech, Washington, and West Virginia.
Top 10 Picks if NFL draft were held today
4. Houston—Andre Johnson (WR-Miami, Fla.*)
6. Dallas—Jordan Gross (OT-Utah)
7. Minnesota—Terence Newman (CB-Kansas State)
9. St. Louis—E.J. Henderson (LB-Maryland)
(Steve Deace can be heard every Monday-Friday from 4-7 p.m. on 1460 KXNO, the flagship of the Cyclone Radio Network)