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December 24, 2013

Special team, special season?

Cyclone fans are asking themselves all the variations of the tough question about the 10-0 Iowa State men's basketball team: is it time to believe?

Is it time to believe this edition of the Cyclones is as good as its national ranking? Is it time to believe ISU can and will compete for a Big 12 championship? Is it time to believe Iowa State will make its deepest run in the NCAA tournament since making the Elite Eight in 2000? And finally, is it time to believe that Fred Hoiberg is a special coaching talent?

It's hard to answer no to any of these questions. Because Iowa State has tied its best start in school history and it hasn't done it against an unusually weak or favorable schedule. It has beaten ranked high-major teams like Michigan and Iowa. It has beaten good mid-major teams like BYU, Akron and UNI. It has throttled all the slappies.

It has won at home, it has won on the road, it has won at neutral sites. It has played with the lead and it has played from behind. It has won close games and it has won blowouts. It has played great offense almost all the time and it has, at times, played the best defense we've seen from a Cyclone team in many seasons. It has rained in threes in some games and dominated inside in others. It can score on the run and it can score on a crawl.

The road gets tougher for sure and the 0 part of 10-0 won't stay an 0 forever. In Kansas and Oklahoma State and Baylor, it will play teams better than any team it has played so far. And it has to play them all twice. It will have to step into several hornet nest arenas where getting in and getting out without getting stung is almost impossible. Lawrence, Stillwater, Norman, Austin - destinations on nobody's prefer-to-play-there list.

But so far, the Cyclones have answered all challenges and remain one of the nation's few unbeaten teams. Ten opponents have done all they could to slow down the potent ISU offense and none really have. Some do for a while, but Iowa State always finds its way and delivers major scoring spurts and runs that turn games. The Cyclones weren't great offensively against UNI…and scored 71 points (in regulation). Iowa State wasn't great offensively in its first two games in Hawaii…and put up 79 and 83.

Two decisive scoring runs carried the Cyclones past Akron on Monday. Iowa State managed to score just 15 points in the first 12 minutes of the Diamond Head Classic semifinal against the Zips. Over the next 3 minutes, ISU poured in 17 points and held Akron to just three of its own and an eight-point deficit (15-23) was converted into a six-point lead (32-26).

With 17 minutes to go in the game, Iowa State's lead was just a single point at 42-41 and it had scored just ten points over six minutes spanning the first three and last three of the two halves. But then over the next eight minutes, the Cyclones went on a 24-7 tear that blew the game wide open and ended with Iowa State leading 66-48 with over nine minutes left to play. 24 points in eight minutes factors out to a 60-point half. That is how explosive Iowa State is when it gets everything working. Sure there are ebbs and flows, but the ebbs shouldn't make ISU fans nervous anymore. Maybe one of these games the Cyclones never pull out of it, but so far, they have always had something in reserve.

For better or worse, Iowa State got 76 of its 83 points from only four players in the win over Akron. Georges Niang (22), Melvin Ejim (21), Dustin Hogue (18) and DeAndre Kane (15) accounted for nearly 92 percent of ISU's offense and no doubt Hoiberg would like to see more out of his fifth starter and more from his bench. But the positive side to it is that any of the big four can be the scoring leader on a given night. And all four are going to make a scoring contribution in just about every game.

It was much the same on Sunday when the Cyclones played perhaps their least inspired game of the year and still beat George Mason by a dozen points, 79-67. Niang had 22 to lead the way, same as the Akron game, with Hogue, Ejim and Kane adding 17, 14 and 13, respectively. The foursome scored 66 of ISU's 79 points on Sunday, which is almost 84 percent of its total output. The Cyclones got eight bench points vs. GMU compared four vs. Akron.

The Mason game also featured the runs that have gotten Iowa State to 10-0, but not as pronounced. The Cyclones trailed 25-24 with just over four minutes to play in the first half and then went on a 10-2 burst over the next 2 minutes for a 34-27 lead. In the first four minutes and change of the second half, ISU outscored the Patriots 10-3 to take the score from 34-29 to 44-32. And after George Mason closed within five at 56-51 with 6:19 to play, Iowa State countered with a game-clinching 9-0 run for a 65-51 lead with 3:25 to go.

The Cyclones still have some questions to answer. What is the solution at shooting guard where freshman Matt Thomas has been starting but not yet producing. Iowa State seems to get better when Naz Long is on the floor at the two, but that doesn't necessarily mean it would work better to make him the starter. Some guys play better after sitting for a few minutes and getting a feel for the game and Long seems like one of those guys. But between the two of them, ISU needs more scoring on a more consistent basis.

Where's the front line help off the bench? Percy Gibson and Daniel Edozie didn't play at all against George Mason and only got mop-up time in the 23-point win over Akron. Iowa State can go with a smaller line-up at times to get Niang and Ejim and Hogue their rest, but that isn't a workable solution all year in every game. Plenty of teams have been plenty successful with seven-man rotations, but at least one dependable big off the bench would go a long way in the Big 12 season to come.

Go ahead and believe, Cyclone fans. If the core of this team can stay healthy, it will have a special season. The first 10 games are a fair sample considering the quantity and quality of opponents vanquished and the various means to an end that ISU has used to get to 10 wins in 10 tries. Much like the 1999-2000 team, Iowa State's line-up is 4/5th as good as any in the Big 12. The 99-00 team had a national championship caliber core of four (Fizer, Tinsley, Nurse, Horton).

Can Thomas and Long combine to be one good two guard? And can the injury bug completely forget ISU exists and stay away all season? Those are two big "unanswers" and only time will give us the answers. But it is okay to believe without fear of getting burned. This team has the makings of being a special one and this season has the makings of being a special one.


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