One thing I have learned over the years of doing this job is that there is nothing worse than covering Iowa State’s locker room after the final game of the season.
Friday night’s Sweet 16 loss to UConn produced an emotional locker room. For this close group of Cyclones, seniors DeAndre Kane, Melvin Ejim and Bubu Palo will be missed greatly. But the scene at Madison Square Garden felt a lot different than it did in Dayton did a year ago. Last year’s locker room felt defeated, which was displayed by a young Georges Niang’s uncontrollable sobbing.
This year’s scene felt unfinished.
When I arrived home from New York late Saturday morning, my wife was jokingly upset that I didn’t buy her an “Iowa State Sweet 16” T-shirt during my trip to the Big Apple. The story behind this is that most of the time when I travel, I bring her back some sort of a souvenir. It’s my way of telling her “thanks” for being the understanding wife of a sports writer. I had forgotten to get her a shirt this time around though. I apologized and told her that we could order one online. My wife, an Iowa State grad yet still a very casual fan of athletics (if she wasn’t married to me she would never watch a game) then said, “It’s hard telling when the Cyclones will ever make it that far again.”
With all due respect to my beautiful but naturally pessimistic wife, I disagree.
A year ago, I felt the same way. No doubt, I had faith in what Fred Hoiberg was doing in Ames but that loss to Ohio State really felt like an up and coming program letting a giant opportunity slip away. Friday’s defeat felt like a team without perhaps its most important player simply running out of gas. Asking yourself “what if” here is inevitable (for the record, I truly believe Iowa State would be playing in the Final Four with a healthy Niang) but the fact of the matter is that Iowa State could be on the verge of being a perennial program in the Sweet 16.
I’m not just being a Clone/hack blogger homer either.
If you picked up Sunday’s edition of the Des Moines Register, you saw this column titled, “Iowa State will be even better next year,” written by veteran scribe Randy Peterson, a man I have looked up to as a mentor since my sophomore year of college in 2004. Love or hate his work, ask anyone in the business from California to New York and they will vouch for Randy’s professionalism. He is as down the middle as they come.
I’m not sure that I will go as far to say that they “will” be better next year. Talent wise, Iowa State should have more of it but can next year’s team replicate the grit and will-to-win that the 2013-14 Cyclones displayed? Both the 2011-12 and 2012-13 Iowa State rosters probably had more pure talent than this year’s team in my opinion. The 2013-14 squad possessed fortitude that doesn’t show up in a box score though. That is tough to replicate. But yes, I will agree that Iowa State very well could be better next year, should the chemistry work itself out (it’s important to note that Hoiberg has a pretty decent track record in this capacity).
I did not feel this way a year ago from today (keep in mind that DeAndre Kane had not signed with Iowa State at that point).
Two transfers, Abdel Nader and Jameel McKay, will make immediate impacts (note that McKay is not eligible to play until the second semester of next year). At the very least, Clayton Custer should be able to contribute as a true freshman. Don’t think for a second that Iowa State won’t seriously court one, two or even potentially three more transfers (some with immediate eligibility, some to sit out) over the next couple of weeks.
A trip to the Sweet 16 was a positive step for this program. The 2013-14 season will always be remembered for the “what if” regarding Georges Niang’s ankle, but it was a positive step indeed. The pieces are in place for another positive step to be taken next season and with quality four-year players like Niang, Naz Long, Monte Morris, Matt Thomas and Custer in town, the foundation (beyond next year) appears to be rock solid in Ames.
Enjoy the ride. As I wrote after Friday night’s loss, this feels like it is only the beginning.