Winning is everything, or so they say. Under normal circumstances, I would agree with this all-or-nothing stance. And by ‘normal circumstances’ I mean those that don’t involve a BCS conference team going from the brink of the Final Four to almost complete irrelevance within the span of a decade. But those are exactly the circumstances that Iowa State basketball finds itself in.
If winning was everything, it wouldn’t be possible for me to feel any better about this current team than I did about any of the previous four. But it is possible, and I do feel better about this team- at least better than I felt about McDermott’s final two squads. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not jumping for joy over a team that currently sits at 1-12 in conference. But when a program has bottomed out, a part of you shifts from hoping for the highly improbable W to looking for the smaller victory- that w within the L.
First and foremost, this team is competitive, even as the losses have mounted. Some may consider this loser talk, and it probably is. That’s the reality that is Iowa State basketball. But a silver lining in this reality is that this current group of Cyclones fights like hell more often than not, and does so with the most limited rotation in the Big 12. Of Iowa State’s 14 losses, only four have come by double digits, and those losses were at #14 Mizzou, at Colorado, at #2 Kansas, and at #5 Texas.
Another reason to feel good about this team is the freshmen, namely, Ejim, Godfrey, and Railey. Many had high expectations for Ejim, but, as a whole, this trio has overachieved. Not only have they performed well for first-year players, but they carry themselves with a little swagger and don’t seem to be intimidated on the court. With everyone looking forward to next season and the debut of the All-Transfer Team, it’s nice to know that these sophomores-to-be will be able to contribute… or more.
Also encouraging is the fact that this team seems to respond well to Hoiberg and his staff. Clearly they haven’t quit, competing deep into a very difficult season. And, anecdotally, the coaches seem to get a lot of bang for their buck when it comes to coaching this group up during timeouts. I’ve never seen a Cyclone staff that convenes a shorter huddle, which would be worrisome if the team flopped more often than not following the break in action. But, typically, it’s just the opposite.
Finally, I’ve mentioned the freshmen, so let’s talk about a senior: Diante Garrett. The very mention of his name will ignite a heated debate any time two or more Cyclone fans are gathered. For the record, I would just like to say LAY OFF! The guy has put in four full years as a Cyclone, something that hasn’t happened since… Jared Homan??? I’m guessing, but the point is that, during a turbulent period when player after player has decided to leave Ames with eligibility remaining, Garrett has gutted it out with little reward. But he doesn’t complain and, believe it or not, he’s actually turning in one hell of a senior season. This has a lot to do with Garrett’s dedication, with a little assist from a coaching staff that lets him do what he does best.
This wouldn’t be an honest post without acknowledging those things that have given us all a reason to be concerned. I think it goes without saying that this year’s Cyclones have displayed a gut-wrenching inability to seal the deal in close games. When only four of 14 losses have come by double digits, that means you’ve lost a slug of close contests. In fact, Iowa State has won just three games decided by single digits, and we did everything we could to give away the Creighton game before dodging OT with an illegitimate “game-winner” at the buzzer.
With a limited rotation that is undoubtedly gassed by the time 40 minutes have elapsed, I typically wouldn’t be nearly as concerned. What has frustrated this Cyclone fan is the coaching staff’s apparent stubbornness in handling late-game situations. Time after time they employed the same strategy with the same frustrating result. Going to your best player made sense the first few times, but eventually it falls into the definition of insanity that is commonly attributed to Einstein: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.
Throughout the season, these failures in close games have haunted the Cyclones, and have continued to be my greatest concern. But, as we all know, Hoiberg is a highly-intelligent man, and I’m confident that he will find a way to correct this deficiency. While a comfortable win may be just what the doctor ordered for this team, part of me is hoping for some nail-biters down the stretch to see if we can discover the winning formula yet this season.
Ultimately, the 2010-2011 Cyclones have proven to be exactly what most experts predicted them to be: talented enough for last place in the Big 12. But there are many reasons for hope, and I honestly believe that I’m not grasping at straws when I say that. Here’s to next season, a return to relevance, and the rebirth of Cyclone basketball.