By Kirk Haaland of enCYCLONEpedia.comFollow Kirk on Twitter @Khaal53
It is the finality of the moment that all but one division one team feels at the end of every season. A feeling of helplessness that something more should have been done to avoid the moment that caused what you’re currently feeling.
The pit in your stomach that the season is over. That this team will have no “next time." That there is no practice to go to tomorrow or film session to break down your next opponent. The season is over when you thought it was going to continue. It is a tough pill to swallow.
On some level, many of us have experienced this more than once in our lives but every time it hits you like a ton of bricks. Leaving the thought in your head that there must have been something you could’ve done to change the result.
For Iowa State’s case on Saturday against Kentucky, the only thing that could’ve been done to slow the Wildcats was to have beaten the Texas Longhorns nine days earlier. That loss cemented the Cyclones' seed which they had earned, but nevertheless their draw was unlucky. The hot Wildcats emphatically proved that point on Saturday in Louisville with what was essentially a home game for the nation’s finest team.
For the past three months, this Cyclone squad has largely played like a five-seed at worst, yet their resume indicated an eight-seed. I can live with that. If Iowa State was going to make the run to achieve their goals, they were going to have to knock off a top dog of some sort, at some point.
This has been a year for bursting through barriers and knocking down walls, many of which were built up in the past seven years of futility. I would argue that for a school like Iowa State, this team should be revered in a similar way to the 2000 football team. In no way is a seven year span equal to a 32 year drought of bowl games but for a basketball school like Iowa State, it sure didn’t feel much different prior to the start of this season.
Two wins over top 10 schools, the ninth best conference winning percentage in school history, and one of the few teams that has eclipsed the 23 win mark in a season. I detailed out some of those types of numbers a few weeks ago here.
The moment was short and that seven year drought from the NCAA tournament was long, but I want you to think back to a single moment in the game against Kentucky from Saturday night. Throughout the first half, it was a game of runs. Kentucky would stretch the lead out while the Cyclones would battle back and let them know it wasn’t going to come easy.
All of this was done by Iowa State successfully taking away the inside game and three lottery picks from the scoring barrages. The Wildcats made tough shots, open shots and everything in between while the Cyclones struggled immensely to hit anything outside of the paint.
In reality, it was a matter of one man possibly laying claim to being the best player on the court among McDonald’s All-American’s and likely lottery picks for the opponent. Royce White may not have been the best player on the court but he stood out far more than anyone else and had a handful of dominant plays. His teammates just couldn’t get shots to drop to keep them within reach and Kentucky was just too hot. Their own coach admitted that they can’t play any better than that, yet the Cyclones hung tough for nearly 30 minutes. There’s no moral victory in that but the point is that no team in America would have kept that game to less than 10 points with those circumstances.
But, back to the moment I want you to recall…ISU came out down 11 to start the second half. It was a deficit that would be erased nearly immediately while John Calipari was forced to use timeouts like Scott Drew. Two emphatic coast to coast drives and dunks by Royce White, a 3-pointer from Scotty and finally a lay-up from Scotty to tie the game up at 42.
Seventeen minutes to play on the biggest stage to date this season against the top team in the land playing what is essentially a home game and here are the Cyclones being pesky and showing everyone that while their resume may have said eight-seed, their ability was far more impressive than that.
That one run to tie the game up capped off by that Calipari timeout brought more joy to me as an Iowa State basketball fan than anything else I can remember over the past few years of struggling teams. Like I said, I’m not laying claim to a moral victory, but that single moment was not only excitement over what had just happened but it was by far the brightest beacon of hope for immediate success that this program has provided since 2005.
It shouldn’t be a surprise that Fred Hoiberg is the man that has done it all. Many questioned — even the most loyal of Cyclone fans — which wasn’t necessarily unfair. Many scoffed at the notion of a man with zero coaching experience being able to take the reins of a division one team and have any kind of success. He wasn’t supposed to be able to coach and develop players, manage the game, or be the strategist that he has proven to be.
Instead of filling March with discussion on the latest transfers that were key players leaving Iowa State we got to watch our team battle it out with Kentucky after a more than gratifying win over Connecticut in the first round.
Looking to next year, the losses of Scott (Christopherson) and Chris Allen will be felt and the questions will linger with Royce White and his decision on his future. In many ways, Royce has done more with his time in Ames to win people over off the court than on it. Everyone knew all along that he could play, but the question was of character and if he was a “misfit”.
He has knocked that one out of the park with his demeanor, charisma, thoughtfulness and articulateness all season long. Never before has a player earned so many fans with just one year in the spotlight of Ames, Iowa. Never before has one man done so much to redeem the questions surrounding him in one year, either.
That is why he will go down as a fan favorite no matter the decision he makes. Whatever it is, every Iowa State fan is behind him and hoping that whatever he does in life will be a success, but really there isn’t much “hope” that needs to be involved.
As we move away from this ISU team that rejuvenated the program and look ahead to next season where there is optimism no matter what the decision is that White makes. Inserting a true point guard in Korie Lucious and a true wing scorer in Will Clyburn to be paired up with Chris Babb, Tyrus McGee, and Bubu Palo in the back court is a start to a strong team.
Add in the front line that will bring back Anthony Booker, Percy Gibson, and Melvin Ejim and you have a formidable building block for next year’s success. It will be a different team with a different style but the pieces and components for a successful team will be there.
That is without mentioning the incoming recruits or the possible return of Royce White.
The ending was a sudden finality that surely left a sour taste in everyone’s mouth. Nobody was ready for the season of rejuvenation to end. While the end came fast, the true beginning for this program is just coming in to focus. The future is bright and looks to be blossoming bigger than we ever could have hoped.