After the Cyclones posted consecutive conference victories for the first time this season by impressively thrashing Colorado, it seemed like there really was light at the end of the tunnel.
Unfortunately, on Saturday night that light turned out to be an oncoming train.
All of ISU's previous problem areas were exposed again in a frustrating 69-63 loss in Lincoln. Frankly, in a season rife with frustrating moments the past two months this one might just be the pinnacle. Or the opposite of pinnacle, whatever that is, depending upon your perspective.
Last week, after his Cyclones doggedly fought back from a 16-point deficit to top Kansas State, Larry Eustachy was talking about this being a turning point for his program.
I expressed admiration for the determination the Cyclones demonstrated in overtaking K-State, but considering the caliber of opponent it was difficult for me to get overly buoyant. However, my skepticism began to erode when ISU followed that up with a dominant pasting of the Buffaloes on Tuesday night. Granted, the Buffaloes have one conference road win this season and K-State's road losing streak now stands at 13 games, but at the time even the most hardened cynic had to be impressed with the character demonstrated by ISU.
Unfortunately, just when it appeared as if we had a reason to cross that line of faith and optimism again Saturday night happened.
The timing of the Husker effort is what has to be most excruciating to ISU fans, players, and coaches. Falling behind to Kansas, 22-2, is humiliating. But after all it is mighty Kansas we're talking about and it was ISU's Big 12 opener. Spotting the Buffaloes a 16-0 lead at home last month was also humiliating, but Colorado is one of the best home teams in America.
Losing to Nebraska, anywhere, anytime, and anyplace is bad. No, make that very bad. That's because the Huskers are…well…bad. I'm talking Big Ten bad.
This is a team that was minus-0.9 in rebounding margin for the season, yet out-rebounded the Cyclones, 41-32.
Not only was ISU beaten on the boards by one of the worst rebounding teams in the league, but check this out:
- The Cyclones shot just 39 percent from the field, including 17-of-43 shooting from star players Tim Barnes, Jackson Vroman, and Jake Sullivan.
- The Cyclones made just six free throws.
- The Cyclones posted an awful 7-to-10 assist-to-turnover ratio.
- The Cyclones made something called a John Turek into an All-American for one evening. This pedestrian big man was averaging modest totals of 7.4 points per game on 44 percent shooting entering Saturday night. Nonetheless, against Iowa State Turek scored 17 points – one less then his season high – and shot 58 percent from the field.
Yet, despite the aforementioned misery, ISU still almost won! That's how bad Nebraska is. It's no wonder Eustachy and his troops retreated back to the locker room to further discuss the loss after talking to the media, as reported in Sunday's Des Moines Register.
This one, on the heels of the last two sterling efforts, was inexplicable. At the very least it temporarily stymies the momentum ISU had established in its previous two outings.
This is the kind of stuff that happens to teams that aren't accustomed to winning away from home. When you've lost 15 straight league road games dating back to February of 2001, you start looking for or anticipating lapses of execution and judgement. And even when you don't, they just seem to happen anyway.
Last week, I asked Eustachy following the K-State game how important it was for his team to find a way to win a game on the road in the Big 12 before the season ended. He looked me right in the eye and responded, "I'm not sure we're there yet as a program."
At the time, I thought he was deadpanning. Instead, he appears to be dead-on.
Despite this setback, there is still time for the Cyclones to attain my final two goals of progress I wrote about last week. By upsetting Missouri at home on Wednesday night, they will guarantee themselves a better showing in the Big 12 than last season. By winning at Kansas State next weekend, they'll break that ugly road losing-streak that I'm sick and tired of writing and talking about. Ironically, Manhattan was the location of ISU's last road victory in the Big 12 as well so that seems like as a good place as any to end the misery.
If I had to choose between which is more important, I'd pick the latter. If next season's Cyclones are going to return full-time to playing "Larry-ball" they have got to learn and achieve what it takes to win on the road.
Big 12 NCAA Tournament outlook
Kansas, Oklahoma, and Texas each rank in the top eight of the RPI. Texas is 3rd, Oklahoma is 4th, and Kansas is 8th. If either Texas or Oklahoma wins the Big 12 Tournament next week, they appear to be locks for a number one seed based on their strong RPIs. If Kansas sweeps the regular season and tournament titles, it will be a number one seed. None of these teams will be lower than a number two no matter how they finish this week in the standings.
Oklahoma State's strong RPI rating of 15 offsets some of its struggles winning away from Stillwater this season, which is a usually a key factor in determining seeding and entry into the field by the Selection Committee. The Cowboys, barring a late collapse, appear destined to be one of the top 16 overall seeds.
Missouri is 17 in the RPI, which puts the Tigers right on the borderline for one of the top seeds. If they sweep this week and get to the semifinals of the Big 12 Tournament that could allow them to overtake teams like Louisville and Notre Dame, which appeared to be locks for top seeds a month ago but are struggling down the stretch.
Bottom line: it's not that far of a stretch to predict that when the Committee unveils its Field of 64 on March 16th that five of the top 16 seeded teams will be from the Big 12. That is amazing. By the way, just in case you're scoring at home, it's also as possible the Big Ten won't have a single team with one of the top 16 seeds since likely league champions