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March 4, 2013

Cyclones where they need to be

Iowa State may not be right where it wants to be when it comes to making the NCAA tournament. But it is right where it needs to be.

The Cyclones would prefer to be solidly in the tournament. They would like to have collected their fair share of wins in close games during the Big 12 season. They'd want to be playing for a better seed in the final week of the season and on into next week's Big 12 tournament.

But that's not how it is and the relevant shelf life of shoulda, woulda, couldas has expired. Iowa State is playing for its NCAA tournament life this week and next. It has lost two straight games and finishes the regular season with two more tough ones: home against Oklahoma State on Wednesday and at West Virginia on Saturday.

If ISU wins both, it should be securely in the tournament. If it wins one and loses one, it may need to win one game at the Big 12 tournament to assure itself a spot in the NCAA field. And if it loses both, it will probably need a run to the Big 12 tourney final, at least, to get in. And you know what? That's how it should be.

If Iowa State loses its last four regular season games, it's not an NCAA tournament team. At least not without a tremendous Big 12 tourney showing. And that's fair. A .500 conference record including an 0-4 homestretch combined with a 19-12 overall record is not what NCAA tournament resumes are made of.

So even though ISU flirted with a season that could have been so much more, it's reality is what it is. And there's something to be said for knowing exactly where you stand and exactly what you have to do in order to achieve a realistic season goal of making the NCAA tournament. The Cyclones are right where I thought they would be going into the season: they are in the NCAA conversation in March.

The overriding problem that Iowa State has is that it's artificially good at home. Even though ISU will benefit in some ways by the subjectivity of a human selection committee that can weigh its heartbreaking losses differently than the cold steel of a computer, the one thing it can't slip past man or machine is the differential in how it plays in Ames compared to how it plays in the other bergs of the Big 12.

A whopping 36-point differential in two games with Oklahoma. A huge 25-point differential versus Texas Tech. Big differentials of 23 and 21 points, respectively, against Texas and TCU. A somewhat more reasonable number - 15 - in the two games with Kansas State. Only the Cyclones' games with Kansas and Baylor played out similarly both at home and on the road. Time will tell with Oklahoma State and West Virginia.

A dominant home court advantage is a good thing and nobody would turn down having such. But when a team is SO much better at home than on the road, it actually cheapens the advantage. It becomes a huge "Yeah, but…" albatross around the neck of a team, especially come tournament selection time. The committee does not use home court winning streaks as a hair-splitting decision-making tool. It does use road wins.

Once again, Iowa State has to hope that the subjective humans of the search committee look deeper than just W and L. The Cyclones have to hope they get some partial credit for heartbreaking road losses at ranked foes Kansas and Oklahoma State. They have to hope that the heartbreaking road loss at Texas is viewed a little more favorably the return of the Longhorns Myck Kabongo.

What ISU can't escape is the colossal clunker at Texas Tech. As much as people tried to downplay it at the time, that is the loss that could keep Iowa State out of the NCAA tournament. Beating Texas Tech does you no good, but losing to Texas Tech does you possibly irreparable harm. There was no reason for it, no rationale for it, no excuse for it. If Iowa State's name isn't called on Selection Sunday, a very bad night in Lubbock will likely be the number one reason why.

Let's hope it doesn't come to that. Iowa State has its fate in its own hands. It has to get by a very good Oklahoma State team in Ames and/or it has to survive a road trip to face a West Virginia team that plays as tough and jagged and rugged as the mountain state itself. And the Cyclones would be very well advised to win at least one Big 12 tournament game - for the first time since 2005.

For perspective, just remember that Iowa State hasn't made back-to-back NCAA tournaments since the Big 12 championship seasons of 1999-2000 and 2000-01. It hasn't even been in the picture to do so since the NIT final four season of 2003-04 and the subsequent NCAA year of 2004-05. So to just be where it is now is another legitimate sign of progress and recovery in year three of the Hoiberg era.

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