One for the Road

Reese Strickland-USA TODAY Sport

Fred Hoiberg's Cyclone team travels to play at Norman, Oklahoma on Saturday and they are playing for some high stakes.

The Big 12 title runs through Lawrence, Kansas. I know it, you know it, but it's a little deeper than that. Wednesday night I watched a struggling Kansas team go on the road to Norman, Oklahoma and methodically win in ho-hum fashion against a good Sooner team. Sure there were big runs and exciting plays, but Kansas was always in control. Always calm, always collected. It's a common trait of Bill Self coached teams that has lead to 9 straight years of conference titles.

But it's that ability to win on the road that has truly caused the separation in the league standings. Over the past 5 years, the Big 12 champs have had a staggering combined road record of 39-12 (.765 winning pct). Over the past 10 years, its 83-32 (.721). Here are the road records of each past champ over the past decade and who they lost to by using the final KenPom ranking. We'll use KenPom rankings based off the fact that this data reaches back to 2003 and similar past data of other rankings systems are hard, if not impossible, to find.

Year Champion Conference Road Record Losses (Ranking)

2013 Kansas 6-3 264 49 29
2013 Kansas State 6-3 27 22 8
2012 Kansas 7-2 24 8 -
2011 Kansas 7-1 28 - -
2010 Kansas 7-1 36 - -
2009 Kansas 6-2 88 7 -
2008 Texas 5-3 66 23 9
2008 Kansas 5-3 73 56 21
2007 Kansas 7-1 77 - -
2006 Texas 5-3 58 52 26
2006 Kansas 6-2 160 7 -
2005 Kansas 5-3 98 39 15
2005 Oklahoma 5-3 98 44 9
2004 Oklahoma State 6-2 48 24

There are some elite teams in that time frame, but every year the story remains the same; the league champ was still winning over .500% of their road games. The other take home from above is that these championship teams only lose to other top teams. The average KenPom ranking of these losses is 49.7, meaning that losses on the road are only acceptable to top 50 teams usually. But how often do these champions beat top 50 teams on the road? Here is the breakdown of wins and losses against each ranking class.

KenPom 1-50: 26-21

KenPom 51-100: 33-8

KenPom 101-200: 17-1

KenPom 201+: 8-1

Which brings us to ISU and their woefully bad road record historically. ISU is 9-33 (.214) away from Hilton over the past 5 years and a deplorable 17-65 (.207) over the last 10. Those numbers include FOUR seasons of going winless on the road in conference (0-28, .000). However, 7 of those road wins belong to Dreamy, but he still has a bad conference road record of 8-19 (.296) even with the Texas Tech win included.

I know what you're thinking, "But Cy4, Greg McDermott was the head coach during most of that! He sucks!" And you are correct, Greg Mcdermott had a horrible conference road record of 5-35 (.125). Thanks again, Creighton. Even with old Greg's shortcomings, Iowa State still had 3 teams make the NCAA tournament during the last decade. Their combined road record? A very respectable 11-15 (.423). However, even these "good" Iowa State teams haven't really been even close to the class of the league.

What's the point of all this historical crap? Point being, that if this team seriously wants to contend for the conference title they must win road games. The winner of this league will likely be 14-4 or 13-5 according to most prediction models. That means having a winning conference road record and going just 5-4 in road games puts you in the conversation. And coincidentally, the last time the Cyclones had a winning conference record, they won the conference. The 2000 squad had a road record of 6-2 and followed it up with a 5-3 record in 2001. In addition to a historically above average road record this team must truly defend Hilton. If they can go unbeaten at home for the first time since 2000-01 they would close the gap needed to win the conference.

Now that we have the breakdown of the historical performance of these past champions we can actually use some of this data to project the road wins needed for ISU to win a Big 12 championship. Let's begin that task with the wild ass assumption that ISU will go 9-0 at Hilton. This isn't that far fetched and honestly should be the goal for the rest of this season. Defending your home court is key to winning any conference, and in this phase, ISU is historically great. After that assumption, we are left with the 8 remaining road games. Below are the KenPom rankings of the remaining road games left on the schedule and ISU's record at each school since 1996-97, the start of Big 12 play.

#61 Oklahoma (1-8)

#64 Texas (1-9)

#15 Kansas (3-14)

#10 Oklahoma State (0-10)

#55 West Virginia (1-0)

#202 TCU (1-0)

#42 Kansas State (5-12)

#28 Baylor (2-7)

First off, this conference is loaded. Remove TCU and the average ranking of the 7 remaining teams is 39.3. Include ISU and that number drops to 35.8. Anyway, let's make some more wild ass assumptions that ISU will lose at OSU and KU and win at TCU. ISU could certainly win at Lawrence or Stillwater, but it's unlikely as past champs have only won around 36% of games against top 15 teams. Plus we all know what happens in Stillwater. The Cyclones could certainly lose in Ft. Worth with the only loss against a bottom 200 team coming last season with Kansas at TCU, but the odds are still pretty long. With these three assumptions, ISU would have a 11-2 Big 12 record with these remaining 5 road games left below.

#61 Oklahoma (1-8)

#64 Texas (1-9)

#55 West Virginia (1-0)

#42 Kansas State (5-12)

#28 Baylor (2-7)

Those remaining 5 games are much more manageable. From the data above, past champions have beaten teams ranked #51-100 around 80% of the time. That means between OU, Texas, and West Virginia; ISU needs at least a 2-1 record. 3-0 would be almost unbelievable for most of us fans who have seen way too many nut punches over the years. Its not unreasonable when compared to past champions success, but for ISU, I'd take 2-1 in a heartbeat.

The final two road games unaccounted for are Baylor and Kansas State, both ranked in the top 50. On the road against top 50 opponents, past champions have won 55% of the time. Meaning a 1-1 standing would be expected for this team to contend for a title. Also not an impossible task as ISU just beat Baylor by 15, albeit in Hilton. Basically, a 3-2 record in these 5 road games will get Fred Hoiberg's bunch to 14-4 in the conference and contending for the championship.

Yes, this is all fun hypothetical, statistically based predictions off of past Big 12 champions, of which Iowa State is not included. It also doesn't take into account upward or downward movement in current KenPom rankings, game momentum, injuries, sex scandals, etc., but it sure is fun.

The big tests start on Saturday morning. The road win against Texas Tech was nice, but the Red Raiders are a very average team and a bottom dweller in the Big 12. The win against Baylor was even nicer, but it was a home game where ISU should expect to win every game. A win this Saturday over a projected middle of the pack team ranked in the top 100 would be the first real step to winning a conference championship and dethroning Kansas (step 2 comes on Monday). And Norman has not exactly been kind to ISU. Since the beginning of Big 12 play, ISU has gone 1-8 at the Lloyd Noble Center with the only win coming on the back of Melvin Ejim two years ago. Even the 1999-2000 Elite Eight team lost in two overtimes in Norman.

The good news though is that Fred Hoiberg is 1-1 in Norman and he has the team to get to 2-1. One of the defining qualities of this team so far has been its mental toughness. They've shown time and again that they can take a punch or six and still keep battling back to win. That is the sign of a champion, but ISU's ability to persevere must continue now more than ever. Maybe their best showing of toughness came over 2 months ago in Provo, Utah. That night they gutted out a road win against a very good BYU team. They had an air about them, a calmness, that no matter how bad the circumstance, they would be victorious that has persisted all season. It was a trait I've seen before in Bill Self's Kansas teams and it's that exact same mental fortitude that will be needed at some point on the road again this season. The experience from that night in Provo will prove to be invaluable as this team sets its sights on their first conference crown in 13 years.

The title may run through Lawrence, but ISU has 8 more pit stops to make on the road first.

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