Sitting at 0-3 in the Big 12 with three consecutive double-digit losses to open the conference season, Iowa State has dug itself an imposing hole if it has any aspirations of returning to the NCAA Tournament. However, it's not an insurmountable one. At least not yet.
I must admit I have been surprised to see the Cyclones open up conference play this way, the difficult early schedule notwithstanding. It's a mirror of what happened to the football team last fall when it faced a similar grueling stretch of games. By now most of you know the script by heart. The Cyclones get buried early, attempt to valiantly come back and show heart after halftime, but never really make their highly ranked opponent sweat come crunch time.
Something is missing from this basketball team, and it may go beyond just an influx of new players struggling to learn their roles and gain experience. Several times already this season they have wilted under the glare of the spotlight. They did it against Boston College on ESPN as well as the three Big 12 big boys they've faced so far. What has to be particularly demoralizing to the Cyclone Nation is that three of these defeats have happened at home.
Is "Hilton Magic" dead, expired, or just on holiday?
Back in December we had hoped the gritty road win over Iowa was a turning point and a stepping stone for this team. Right now it appears to be an anomaly. Granted, not many teams – if any – in America could survive the road currently being walked by the Cyclones unscathed, but did anybody expect them to go 0-3 with an average margin of defeat of 19.6 points per game either?
Where is that trademark toughness of Larry Eustachy coached teams? Last season, despite a dearth of talent and leadership the Cyclones still managed to take Kansas, Texas, and Oklahoma State to the wire at home and even upset an Elite Eight team in Missouri. Does anybody really want to argue the talent level in Ames last season was better then compared to now? Of course not. Kansas and Oklahoma are Final Four-caliber teams and there's no shame in losing to them, but no one thinks they're as good as they were last season either.
After two years of recruiting the program still hasn't recovered from the loss of Jamaal Tinsley. With him Eustachy was 27-5 in league play. Without Tinsley his record in the big 12 is 10-25.
As alarming as those numbers are, it would be premature to panic. In 12 seasons as a Division I head coach, Eustachy has won six conference championships, been named a conference coach of the year four times, and is just three years removed from his national coach of the year honor. He clearly has developed a track record, and is respected by his peers nationwide as one of the best in the business.
If LE says he likes his guys, then we should take him at his word and like them too. Another reason I don't think we should bee too harsh just yet is because it's still very early in conference play, and the second half of the season provides LE and his staff with plenty of opportunities to tinker. Given LE's track record, it's likely he'll find the right combination as well.
Nonetheless, this isn't something that just more game experience will fix. Most of the problem is the opposition, which is a lot better and a lot more battle-tested than the Cyclones. But it appears as if trust and buying into Eustachy's way of doing things is also a problem.
How many times have we seen Tim Barnes dart the court only to find no one to pass to? Where are his teammates? Where is Barnes' pull-up jumper, which he seems to miss with regularity? Does Chris Alexander have another move other than a line-drive hook shot? Why does it take until halftime before Jake Sullivan finally gets some decent looks at the basket and knocks down some shots?
During the first half of Saturday's game against the Sooners, Hollis Price got several open looks from the arc behind screens. I couldn't help but wonder why Iowa State can't seem to that with Sullivan? Instead, the Sooners guarded Sullivan so close that when he burped they were able to smell his lunch.
There is one personnel cause for concern. It appears as if Adam Haluska is the only player on the roster capable of getting his own shot consistently, and he is clearly hesitant to exert himself as a freshman. That means there's an overall lack of athleticism. Perhaps that's the reason LE has extended so much grace towards Jerome Harper?
The postseason fate of this team is likely going to be decided in the next three games: at Missouri, Nebraska, and at Oklahoma State. With an RPI of just 106 before the Oklahoma loss, the Cyclones are going to have to finish with a winning record in the Big 12 to get an at-large selection from the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee. An 8-8 conference record mark do it, if Iowa State wins two games in the Big 12 Tournament to get to 20 wins overall.
If the Cyclones can find a way to win two of the next three games and jell in time to take advantage of a softer second half conference schedule, they could attain that goal. However, there's not much more margin for error. Road games at Kansas and Colorado (where ISU always struggles) are likely losses. There's also a road game with improving Kansas State, which actually got some Top 25 votes last week.
One thing I did like was the attitude of the team after Saturday's game. This is clearly a squad sick of losing conference games, and now that they're at the breaking point perhaps we'll start to see some of the will exemplified by their head coach reflected in their play?
Seneca at the Senior Bowl
By all accounts, Iowa State quarterback Seneca Wallace impressed NFL scouts with his throwing ability at the Senior Bowl last week. Wallace displayed a stronger arm than originally thought, and scouts were equally impressed with his footwork and mobility. Wallace also worked out at wide receiver, although he doesn't really have the pure speed of an Antwaan Randle-El. Wallace will be a quarterback in the NFL, but he likely won't be drafted until the fourth and fifth round because of his height. If he were 6-3 instead of a shade under 5-11, he'd be a first round draft choice.
As many as five quarterbacks could