enCYCLONEpedia: More than a bitter end

I’m a bad fan.

I have a fairly extensive library of old Iowa State basketball (and football) games that I crack into during the doldrums of the off-season or if I need a pick me up or something to kill time while on the treadmill.

The 1986 NCAA Tournament game against Michigan is a favorite, as is the 1997 win over Cincinnati in the second round of the Big Dance, and the 1996 Big Eight Championship win over Kansas, and the clobbering of UCLA in the 2000 Tournament, the birth of Hilton Magic in the Barry Stevens game against Missouri in 1983, the Fred Hoiberg explosion against Kansas his senior year, and countless others from the past three years. Just to name a few.

But, I’ve always dismissed the 2001 team. It was a tremendous team that had an excellent season. They won the Big 12 regular season title and earned a 2-seed for their efforts. But they famously flamed out in March; both in the conference tournament and the NCAA Tournament.

At the time I was a 17 year old kid that didn’t know much about much and my formative years aligned with Iowa State basketball teams that were relatively successful in the history of the program. I watched plenty of ISU trips to the NCAA Tournament, saw a whole lot of wins and great seasons while Hoiberg and company was playing, during the Willoughby/Pratt/Cato years, and that 1999-2000 season was pretty fun too.

I wouldn’t say I was entitled because that isn’t possible with pretty much any Cyclone sporting endeavor but I absolutely did not understand and recognize the accomplishments of that team all because of how they finished the season. That has carried over to today when I very rarely reflect on that season with much joy. I don’t rejoice in the Martin Rancik buzzer beater at Nebraska, or the Horton bomb from the “a” in Kansas, or Jake Sullivan going nuts against Kansas in Ames.

No matter the circumstances, winning a regular season conference title is always one hell of an accomplishment. I have nearly shunned that season and its greatness…all because of two bad games.

I can’t chalk the loss to UAB up to basketball being a silly game that doesn’t matter in order to make myself feel better. It is indeed a silly game, but I wrote last year talking about why it matters (and honestly, that is far from literary genius but that post is one of mine that I’m most proud of).

Some have compared the losses to UAB and Hampton and wondered which one was worse. My only response is that it just doesn’t matter. They were both extremely disappointing when expectations were so much higher. In the same manor, I don’t wonder if the win over Auburn in the second round in 2000 is better than the win over Cincinnati in the second round in 1997 or the win over North Carolina in the second round last season.

You can’t talk about this season without talking about expectations. I’ve spent a decent bit of time this season diffusing postgame trauma from losses by pointing out the legacies are built and fond memories are hatched in March. Everything else is just the buildup.

But as I pointed out a couple of weeks ago, it seems some have confused the meaning and application of expectations with goals. When it comes to supporting your team, fans don’t have goals because they don’t have a thing to do with the process. For fans, it is about hopes.

To me, as a fan, it breaks out to expectations versus goals versus hopes.

The goals were pretty clearly stated by the team both during the season and prior to it starting that the team and staff was aiming for a conference title and had even loftier goals that involved a trip to Indianapolis. Neither of those, by the way, was really an outlandish reach. The Cyclones finished in second place in the Big 12 standings by a game while winning the conference tournament (again) and quite a few pundits picked them to find their way into the Final Four.

Those goals transfer to the fans as hopes but are often not really downgraded as they get transferred again to expectations. Right or wrong, it seems the tenor of the fan base ends up with the stated goals of the program as their own expectations.

Expectations for fans, players, coaches and everyone else is a bit more difficult to define because it is reliant on the interpretation of each person. But they often provide the framework for the season being perceived as a success or not. This is obvious, but compare the Tournament trips of the first two Fred Hoiberg led teams to be playing in March and how the fans felt versus now if you need an example.

I’ve been wrong to look back at the 2000-01 season as I have by ignoring all but two games in my reminiscing and it would be wrong to do that with this Cyclone team too.

In a snapshot it is hard to call the season anything other than a success. In the past 35 years there have been just five other occasions where Iowa State finished in at least a tie for second place in the conference as they did this season. And the further you go back in history that number isn’t increasing until the Gary Thompson teams in the 50s. This year was just the second time that Iowa State spent the entirety of the season in the AP top 25 poll—the only other being the 1996-97 season.

Iowa State beat nine ranked opponents this season, which tops the previous high of eight from the 2013-14 season. That goes with the four losses versus ranked teams for a winning percentage of 0.692. That is the third best in school history and just behind last year’s number at 0.727 and the 1999-2000 team that was 7-3 for 0.700.

Those are all amazing accomplishments in the lore of Cyclone basketball but this season has also been a top 15 campaign among their peers nationally.

But none of that removes the sting of the disappointment.

As Travis Hines wrote late last week, that stinging disappointment was handled differently by many within the fan base. As he stated, there was enough fan discontent levied through social media that it caused problems behind closed doors. Often times, it was a disproportionate amount of vitriol aimed at Iowa State’s First Team All-Conference performer, Georges Niang.

I love Niang for how good he is but I also love the way that he plays, the personality he gives us and how he represents his school. Similar to how I’m fond of past Cyclones like Diante Garrett, Chris Babb, Justus Thigpen, Jacy Holloway, Julius Michalik, Craig Brackins, Jake Sullivan, Stevie Johnson, and many more. Not all of those guys won a bunch of games but I respect what they gave to Iowa State.

Fan anger is unavoidable, especially when it comes to the passionate Iowa State fan base. Criticisms are bound to flow from their mouths and fingers but there are ways to express that in a much more respectful way. Basically, if you wouldn’t say it to their face, I’d recommend ditching the thought.

While some have claimed that it is okay because impartial observers don’t understand the frustrations because they aren’t financially invested and others say the players should just deal with it or avoid it, is that the message you want to send and the environment you want to create?

The fan support in Ames is incredible and second to none but there is the other side of the coin too. The one with biting anger when things go off track, toward independent third parties, opponents, and our own program shows itself often as well.

This program is at an all-time high. It has gone to four straight NCAA Tournaments (the most in school history), has been ranked in the top 25 since November of 2013, and Fred Hoiberg is the fastest Iowa State coach to 100 wins, ever.

You, me, all of us, are crazy fans that live and die with the team. It means a lot to us but let’s not get to the point where we are so egotistical that we think the losses hurt us more than the players or coaches. The guys that eat, sleep, and breathe this stuff for five months while putting in more hours and work than we can probably even imagine.

It was a great season with a bad ending.

The early win over Arkansas, the trouncing of Iowa in Iowa City, the emergence of Monte Morris and Jameel McKay as stars in the making, sweeps of Texas, West Virginia, and Oklahoma State, College Gameday, beating the Jayhawks twice, and another three game winning streak in Kansas City.

Ask anyone, this program has established itself as the top contender for Kansas (with Oklahoma also tagging along) in the Big 12. One season short…one disappointing loss…doesn’t change that.

Remember the season for the great moments, and don’t just throw it to the wayside because of the last game…if you can. As a fan base, be passionate and be crazy but let’s try to be better with the guys that play for our school. Yeah, it happens everywhere and some think the players need to toughen up, but why settle for what everyone else does? If we did that then Hilton Magic wouldn’t exist.

Upsets happen, and the more a team is on the national radar and garnering higher seeds the more they fall victim to them. We are all bummed and, honestly, a bit new to this role as perennial contender but we’ll figure it out. We have a bunch of players for right now and down the line, one of the top young coaches in the game, a strong program, and a hell of fan base and home court advantage.

A little more than 10 years ago I learned a valuable lesson. I was asked to remember the good times but, I also want to remember the bad times and the medicore times because they were our times. Without the "bad" it is really hard for there to be a "good". Like playing a video game and always winning in a blowout on the easiest mode. It’s hard, but in the end, it’s worth it even more. The bitter makes tastes more sweet and failures shape future successes. 

Good or bad, make or miss, win or lose; the token always has two sides. But the side of the token we see usually isn’t as important as just flipping it again.

The exit this year sucked and this weekend has been rough while the games are still ongoing and the wound is still wide open. But, they’ll be back and it won’t be long.

And, I trust the best fans in the country will be there again while trying to be even better for their team.

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