When was the last time a Big 12 men's basketball team celebrated and felt so much relief after a win over Kansas State?
Probably not since Lon Krueger coached Mitch Richmond and the Wildcats to the Elite Eight in 1988. But Saturday afternoon's cardinal-and-gold exuberance was about more than just the Hilton Coliseum scoreboard reading Iowa State 64, K-State 61 with no time left.
The Wildcats weren't so much the vanquished as were some of the inner demons that have been plaguing the sagging Cyclones since Jamaal Tinsley exhausted his eligibility two years ago.
When you've suffered the downfall the Cyclones have after back-to-back conference titles, and the player attrition resulting mainly from poor recruiting choices, you've got to start somewhere.
"I'm talking about getting a base for this program," ISU Coach Larry Eustachy said afterwards. "I'm building for the future. I know it sounds crazy, but this was a big step."
Whether or not the gritty, determined victory forged by the Cyclones was a "big step" or a "turning point" – as Eustachy also claimed – remains to be seen. We are still talking about a program that hasn't won on the road in the league in 15 games, dating back to February 21, 2001. When I asked Eustachy in the tunnel after the game how important it was for his program to get that monkey off its back before the season concluded, he was non-committal.
"I'm not sure we're there yet as a program," he told me.
In terms of building a base for the future, you can only do that once you've hit bottom. And the Cyclone Nation is praying their charges have already done that.
There's at least one reason to be cautiously optimistic that is the case.
That's because even a hardened cynic has to be impressed with the way the undermanned Cyclones fought back. Granted, K-State won't be mistaken for Kansas, Oklahoma, or Texas any time soon but beggars – see that as winners of just seven of their last 28 Big 12 games – can't be choosers.
Jake Sullivan, Tim Barnes, and Adam Haluska each played all 40 minutes. Jackson Vroman chipped in with a "measly" 37 minutes himself. Nonetheless, the long minutes didn't hamper their effectiveness. Sullivan was simply sensational, scoring a game-high 25 points while finishing with four assists and ZERO turnovers.
Barnes easily had his best Big 12 game as a Cyclone and finally looks to be living up to the advanced recruiting hype that made him a second team JUCO All-American last season. He sparked a 15-4 run to open the second half that catapulted ISU back in the game with his on-the-ball defense and hat trick of three-pointers.
Vroman finished with a game-high 16 rebounds, while perhaps setting the record for the highest celebratory ball-toss in the history of Hilton Coliseum as the game ended.
"We haven't won in a while," said Vroman, explaining the gesture.
Indeed. Not that anyone was noticing.
Anyway, Eustachy's assertions that a watershed moment in the rebuilding of ISU basketball has been attained will be tested in the final four games of the season. At this point, I would advise Cyclone fans to look for three signs – other than a star in the East – that progress is being made down the stretch.
- Beating Colorado on Tuesday night. It's difficult to decide which was ISU's ugliest Big 12 moment this season: falling behind, 22-2, against Kansas at Hilton or 16-0 at Colorado. Considering Kansas is…well…Kansas, I'll vote for the Buffaloes' stampede back on February 8th that had Pete Taylor uttering "good night" before the first television timeout. Colorado is a far different team on the road than it home, but it can still claim athletic superiority over ISU. In order to capitalize on Saturday's momentum, the Cyclones desperately need this win. If a turning point has been reached then victory should be theirs.
- Winning a conference road game. In my layman's opinion, it is absolutely imperative that ISU erase this stigma before the season comes to an end. For a team young in terms of experience, and one that is expected to give another batch of newcomers baptism by fire next season as well, that ugly conference road losing streak is a pretty sharp dagger to have hanging over your heads. The final two Big 12 road tests are at Nebraska and Kansas State, and both are definitely winnable games. The problem is those hungry programs are looking at the Cyclones as fresh meat as well.
- Finishing with a better Big 12 record than last season. After ISU's stirring victory at Iowa on December 13th, this looked like a lead-pipe lock. Now we're just looking for baby-steps. Iowa State was a paltry 4-12 in the Big 12 last season, and right now they stand at an even paltrier 3-9. In order to better last season's fall from grace, the Cyclones need two more victories. I happen to think every game remaining on their schedule is winnable if they play with the tenaciousness they displayed in the second half against K-State on Saturday. But let's not get greedy here.
If these three modest benchmarks are met, then the theme of my March 10th Monday Musings column will be congratulating Eustachy and the Cyclones for finally turning the corner. If ISU falls short, then I believe some skepticism will still be in order.
Mad Props to the Nation
Perhaps no one has been a more vocal proponent of the Cyclone Nation raising its attendance level another notch than I have. I've never been gun shy about "encouraging" ISU fans to put their money where their mouths are and give this athletic department what it needs most to continue to thrive: which is fannies in the seats.
In that context, allow me to be the first one to stand and applaud Cyclone Nation for showing up nearly 13,000 strong at Hilton Coliseum on Saturday to cheer on a struggling basketball program. It was an impressive show of support under the circumstances, and Eustachy made sure to acknowledge his appreciation afterwards.
Obviously, I don't go back to the glory days of "Hilton Magic" under Johnny Orr like so many of you, but I do go back to the glory days of Marcus Fizer. Once the Cyclones gave the crowd a sliver of optimism, it responded uproariously and was definitely a catalyst in altering K-State's momentum.
It was good to hear Hilton come alive again.
From the Peanut Gallery
Eustachy posed for pictures with some youngsters after the game Saturday. One ISU fan yelled out: "Be careful Coach, that picture could end up on the Internet!"
Eustachy responded with a wry smile.
Next Time it's on LE
If you're looking for a free lunch, you might want to check out the Greater Des Moines Cyclone Club's final luncheon of the season on March 6th in Johnston.
Eustachy has vowed to pick up the tab as penance for ditching the largest Cyclone Club in the country last Friday without so much as a phone call. And yes, I do have that on tape.
According to GDMCC President Lynn Pudenz, about 170 ISU die-hards paid money to see Eustachy speak. Instead, they got ISU administrative assistant Bob Sundvold for the second time in a month.
Eustachy told me that Marcus Jefferson's gravely ill mother was not the reason he didn't attend. Instead, he said he had some family and business concerns to address. Eustachy said on his pre-game show on the Cyclone Radio Network that he attempted to reach the Club about his absence, but he had the wrong phone number.
The Club was disappointed, but not necessarily surprised. In fact, odds were being laid in the lobby beforehand about whether the publicity-shy Eustachy would show.
If Eustachy follows through on his scheduled March 6th appearance and act of good will, then ISU fans – and even me – should let this public relations nightmare end and move on.
After Saturday's victory, Eustachy talked a lot about turning points. In terms of customer relations, let's hope Friday's faux pas was one for Eustachy himself. He's often absent from his numerous media responsibilities, unlike his contemporaries Bill Fennelly and Dan McCarney. He also doesn't hold weekly press conferences with the media, a rarity for high-level Division I program like Iowa State.
But disrespecting the media is one thing, even though a cash-strapped ISU athletic department could use all the free publicity it can get. Taking the fans for granted is another, and I know from talking to several members of the GDMCC that they feel underappreciated.
The people who make up entities like the GDMCC are the true-believers. They've been residents of the Cyclone Nation long before this website and magazine existed or McCarney, Fennelly, and Eustachy ever came to Ames. And they and their children will be here long after they're all gone. They donate their time and money to the cause and deserve recognition from those who draw a paycheck from the athletic department based partly on their efforts.
I have a hard time buying that Eustachy is snobbish, given his social propensity to attend mixers with the common folk. I think it's more a case of ignorance, so hopefully the flap that ensued this weekend will open his eyes. Fennelly and McCarney say yes to nearly everybody, and that certainly hasn't deterred their programs from producing revenue for ISU or bringing joy and pride to ISU fans.
Don't forget Thursday night
It's never too early to start talking some football, and we'll be doing that this Thursday night (February 27th) at the Nest Bar and Grill in Johnston, Iowa. We'll also be celebrating the 2003 ISU recruiting class.
Featured guests are ISU recruiting coordinator Don Knock and assistant head coach Terry Allen. ISU fans will get their first glimpse of the new Cyclones with a viewing of the official highlight video of the 2003 recruits. Knock and Allen will discuss the class and Iowa State football as well.
Also, we'll have some great giveaways courtesy of Off Campus Apparel & Novelties in Des Moines. Again, please join us at The Nest, 5800 Merle Hay Road in Johnston, at 7:30 p.m. on Thursday to talk some ISU football. You don't have to be a subscriber to Cyclone Nation.com or Cyclone Nation Magazine to attend. All Iowa State fans are welcome. I hope to see all of you there.
(Steve Deace can be heard in central Iowa each Monday-Friday from 4-7 p.m. on 1460 KXNO, the flagship of the Cyclone Radio Network)