This is one of my favorite columns to write ever year.
To the casual fan, most non-conference basketball games are fairly insignificant. One-sided scores, below average crowds and a lack of enthusiasm aren’t always that exciting to all.
To diehards though, you know that teams are shaped in the months of November and December. Last season, we saw that some lumps (the Drake loss comes to mind) that the Cyclones took in the fall of 2011 helped them thrive in the winter of 2012.
What’s in store for the Cyclone Nation when the basketball season officially tips off on Friday? Here’s a game-by-game preview for you hoops junkies out there.
Southern (Nov. 9, 7 p.m.) – Here’s a program that many publications, including Athlon, is predicting to win the SWAC this season (however also note that Blue Ribbon has Southern placing sixth in the league). Under second-year head coach Roman Banks, Southern will be led by a senior guard named Deric Beltran, who averaged 13.3 points per game last season. He’s a consensus first-team All-SWAC performer for the upcoming season. Southern doesn’t have much as far as post players go so Iowa State should have the advantage there. This just might be the best low-major program on Iowa State’s schedule this season.
Alabama A&M (Nov. 12, 7 p.m.) – The Bulldogs will be led by rookie head coach Willie Hayes. Here’s a program that is led by its versatile swingman and consensus All-SWAC forward Demarquelle Tabb. Pretty much everyone is picking the Bulldogs to finish in the bottom half of the SWAC this season.
Campbell (Nov. 18, 6 p.m. in the Global Sports Classic) – DO NOT SLEEP ON THE CAMELS. I REPEAT. DO NOT SLEEP ON THE CAMELS. Just ask that Hawk fan in the cubicle next to you.
Campbell returns three starters from last year’s team that won non-conference bouts over Iowa and East Carolina. Two of those men are the reigning Big South’s Freshman of the Year Trey Freeman and the league’s second-leading scorer from last season, Darren White. Look for Campbell to be right up there with Southern as one of the top teams on Iowa State’s non-conference schedule as far as low to mid-majors go. The Camels will likely be in the hunt to win the Big South and make the NCAA Tournament.
North Carolina A&T (Nov. 20, 7 p.m. in the Global Sports Classic) – Veteran coach Cy Alexander takes over a program that went 12-20 a season ago. Most publications are picking A&T to finish in the bottom half of the MEAC.
VS. Cincinnati (Nov. 23, 5:30 p.m. in Las Vegas/Global Sports Classic) – Now we’re talking.
The Cyclones will head to Vegas for the Global Sports Classic on Thanksgiving weekend. Up first are the always-tough Cincinnati Bearcats. When I write “tough,” I mean it. Here’s a quote from Cincinnati head coach Mick Cronin in this year’s Blue Ribbon College Basketball Yearbook for an example.
“Defense is engrained in our DNA. For us, we’re trying to create turnovers and extend our defense more consistently.”
Defense. Cincinnati might be without Yancy Gates in 2012-13 but this still might be one of the best defensive teams in America. This will be a stiff, much-needed test for the Cyclones early in the season. This is an Iowa State team that I wouldn’t describe as bruising. It’s a tough match-up but one that should teach the Cyclones something about themselves.
I’m not crazy about the match-up from an Iowa State standpoint but it’s a good one to have on the schedule.
Blue Ribbon projects Cinci to finish sixth in the demanding Big East. Athlon has the Bearcats at fifth while Lindy’s slots them at seventh. This is a solid, upper-half Big East team.
VS. UNLV/Oregon (Nov. 24, TBA in Las Vegas/Global Sports Classic)
UNLV –The Running Rebels are essentially the unanimous pick to win the Mountain West Conference this season. UNLV, a program that Blue Ribbon has ranked No. 15 to start the season, only returns two starters from a year ago but brought in America’s 7th ranked recruiting class (according to ESPN).
The thing is, UNLV will have eight newcomers on this year’s roster. It’s a talented basketball team that should only improve as the season rolls along. Obviously, catching the Rebels early in the season is an advantage should the Cyclones run into them in Vegas.
Oregon – Dana Altman’s Ducks made it to the quarterfinals of the NIT a season ago but look to be a middle/rear of the pack team in the Pac-12 this season. Oregon returns two starters from a team that won 24 games. Pretty much everybody is picking the Ducks to finish in the bottom half of the Pac-12.
BYU (Dec. 1, 1 p.m.) – This is easily the most intriguing non-con game that will be played at Hilton Coliseum this season. The Cougars aren’t being picked to win the West Coast Conference (Gonzaga is receiving those preseason honors) but most see BYU as an NCAA Tournament bubble team when March rolls around. BYU made it to the second round of the Big Dance last season in its first stint with the West Coast Conference. For BYU and head coach Dave Rose, everything starts with 6-foot-9 center Brandon Davies, who led the West Coast Conference in scoring (18 ppg) last season, while averaging 8.1 rebounds as well. Expect the Cougars to use a three-guard lineup when they come to Ames in December.
Florida Gulf Coast (Dec. 4, 7 p.m.) – This is an experienced low-major program that made it to the finals of the Atlantic Sun Conference Tournament last March. Athlon has the Eagles finishing third in that league this season.
At Iowa (Dec. 7, 7 p.m.) – Folks on the eastern side of the state are excited about basketball again and you know what? I’m happy about that. It’s good for everybody. Remember the days when Iowa State vs. Iowa on the hardwood was a huge deal? If third-year coach Fran McCaffrey has half the team that many believe, the Cyclones will be in for a war at Carver Hawkeye Arena on Dec. 7.
Back for the Hawkeyes are proven Big Ten players Aaron White, Melsahn Basabe, Zach McCabe and Devyn Marble. The question surrounding this Iowa team in my opinion is around the play of true freshman point guard Mike Gesell, who has earned high marks from media and his coach alike in the off season. Most publications have the Hawkeyes being a middle of the pack team in what should be a tough Big Ten Conference.
Dec. 7’s road trip should be a fun one.
Nebraska-Omaha (Dec. 9, 6 p.m.) – This will mark the second season at the division one level for the Mavericks, who will participate in the Summit League for the first time in 2012-13. UNO is being picked by most to finish last in its league but four starters will return for the upcoming season.
VS Drake (Dec. 15, 4 p.m. @ Wells Fargo Arena in Des Moines) – A game that Iowa State’s roster and the entire Cyclone Nation should be amped for on Dec. 15 at Des Moines’ Wells Fargo Arena. The Bulldogs absolutely punk’d Iowa State a year ago at the Knapp Center. As it turns out, that loss might have been a blessing in disguise for an Iowa State team that at the time, had no identity at all.
The Bulldogs ended last season with a 18-17 mark and head coach Mark Phelps, who might be on the hot seat, thinks this year’s squad is better.
“From last year to this year, overall we’re more talented,” Phelps told Blue Ribbon.
That same publication has the Bulldogs tabbed to finish sixth in what should be an ultra-competitive Missouri Valley Conference. Eight newcomers will join five players who have started games in a Drake uniform.
One man you won’t see take on the Cyclones this season is Rayvonte Rice, who transferred to Illinois.
Ben Simons, Seth VanDeest,, Jeremy Jeffers, Jordan Clarke and Karl Madison are all familiar names.
At UMKC (Dec. 19, 7 p.m.) – In a bit of an odd December road trip, the Cyclones will take on the UMKC Kangaroos, who are picked to finished towards the end of the Summit League standings. UMKC went 10-21 last season. However, head coach Matt Brown’s team will boast more experience this season.
Yale (Jan. 1, 12 p.m.) – Iowa State will wrap up its non-conference schedule on New Year’s Day, 2012 with Yale, who Blue Ribbon projects as the sixth best team in the Ivy League. The Bulldogs are forced to replace a two-time first-team All-Ivy League player in Greg Mangano. In addition to that, Reggie Willhite, who is also gone, was the Ivy League’s Defensive Player of the year in 2011-12. The deck is stacked against Yale this season but this program has a winning tradition, as the Bulldogs have been fourth or better in their league for the past 12 years.