All of Iowa State’s modern NCAA tournament seasons have come since the field was expanded to 64/68 teams. So it’s easy to compare and evaluate seasons based on how far a particular Cyclone team advanced in the tournament. Certainly there’s more to a season than just the NCAAs, but it ends up being the criteria that a team and a program are judged on.
For ISU, going to the NCAA tournament makes it a good year. Winning the first-round game makes it a very good year. Advancing to the Sweet 16 makes it a great year. And so on. The 2016-17 season will stand the test of the time in the I-State basketball record book as a very good year.
Iowa State played to its No. 5 seed in the tournament by beating Nevada in the first round and then losing a close game to 4th-seeded Purdue in the round of 32. The Cyclones won solidly in the game they were supposed to win solidly, and came close in the game they were supposed to come close in. ISU has played to seed far more often than not in recent years, even though it’s the rare times it doesn’t that people tend to remember.
And, I-State typically wins in the first round. It’s done so five times in the current streak of six NCAA tournament invites and it’s six of seven reaching back to 2005. Sure, the upsets loss to UAB is brought up first by many, but that’s simply man bites dog being a lot more memorable than dog bites man. When you routinely do what you’re supposed to do in the tournament, it goes largely unnoticed by the ignorant masses.
Clearly, the 16-17 season marks the end of an era and sets the stage for a transition into another. That’s obvious to anyone who follows the program. Any time a core group of four senior starters - plus a pair of grad transfers and a beloved walk-on – exit the program, that’s major change. And there could be off-season attrition as well; there usually is. It will very much be a new look team that takes the court next November at Missouri to open the 2017-18 campaign.
The 2016-17 team will be remembered for an exceptional stretch run. Iowa State ended up winning 11 of its last 14 games, including the NCAA second-round loss to Purdue. It didn’t necessarily look like a tournament team as the season rounded the fourth turn around the first of February. But head coach Steve Prohm and his staff got things figured out in terms of personnel, rotation, chemistry and dynamics and the team members submitted to the coaching.
Iowa State surprised me and a lot of other people in February and March by putting together winning streaks of six and four games. To that point, the Cyclones were a team that gave no indication they would win – or lose – more than two games in a row. The consistency just wasn’t there, good or bad, to go on a run. But that changed and ISU surged to a Big 12 tournament championship into the NCAA tournament as a five seed as a result.
The one missing piece all year, a big man on par with the rest of the starting line-up, could never really be overcome and it was especially telling against Purdue. There’s no question that Solomon Young’s insertion into the starting line-up was the right move of chess pieces based on results. And Darrell Bowie certainly had his moments down the stretch. Still, the five position remained the weakest link. Imagine ISU with a post player of the same caliber as the senior quartet of Morris, Thomas, Mitrou-Long and Burton. That imaginary team is still playing on the second weekend of the tournament, without question.
Iowa State ended up going small against the Boilermakers and the bold move almost worked. The Cyclones eventually went all in on their greatest advantages against Purdue - quickness and speed – but it happened too late. With or without a Young or Bowie on the floor, ISU should have been taking Purdue off the dribble all game long. But instead the Cyclones fell into an old habit of settling for jump shots; shots that mostly weren’t falling as weary legs showed themselves a bit.
The option of attacking the rim was there from the beginning of the game, but ISU didn’t really commit to doing it until three-quarters of the way through. In particular, Deonte Burton abused Caleb Swanigan repeatedly in what was a very awkward mismatch for the Purdue big man. Matt Thomas’ big first half and Burton’s big second half made the game as close as it was in the end, but the winning formula for Iowa State was going to be the same all the way through – take it to the rack.
And so a 24-11 season is in the official record now and will stay that way forever. All the superlatives have already been used for Monte Morris so there’s really nothing more to be said about one of the best point guards in Cyclone history. He’s a Mount Rushmore, hang-the-jersey type player for the Iowa State program. Even though the job is in better hands than most people realize next year, there’s simply no replacing a Morris.
Naz Mitrou-Long’s fifth season was the bonus ISU hoped it would be, although he did not finish on the highest of notes (five points vs. Purdue). Had he been healthy in 2015-16, maybe that team is even better than the Sweet 16 – we’ll never know. But along with that, there’s no question this year’s team was better because of his extra season.
Thomas was an inspirational story, a brilliant shooter, and developed into one of the best defenders Iowa State has seen in recent years. And Burton added his name to the list of impact transfers who should have been Cyclones from the beginning and fortunately realized their mistake while there was still time to transfer and make a difference in Ames.
Yes, it was a very good year for Iowa State basketball. The bar for the Cyclone remains set at making the NCAA tournament and that is what next year’s team will be expected to do in a seventh consecutive season. Expecting anything less is selling ISU basketball short. Iowa State has to be good every year if it hopes to be great – or better – in some years. That’s how to keep the program in position for the truly magical year that everyone thinks can happen.