With President Obama delivering last night's state of the union address (which I'm sure you all watched), I thought why not carry that theme over to a matter of equal importance, the state of the Iowa State men's basketball program.
We know the program as a whole is in excellent hands and the approval rating of The Mayor is holding steady at 100%, but there are matters of great importance and at the risk of dipping into the political realm, we're here today to discuss the key issues Wolf Blitzer style.
1. Production Inequality
Polls show that a majority of Americans believe that the gap has widened between the wealthy and the poor over the last decade and unfortunately, there's a sentiment among Cyclone fans about the inequality of production on the roster, leading to a shrinking middle class.
The Core Four of Melvin Ejim, Georges Niang, DeAndre Kane and Dustin Hogue have led the charge throughout the year and in many cases, carried Iowa State. Each has been consistently spectacular and serves a vital role to this year's team, but does this come at a cost to the rest of the roster?
Fred Hoiberg has primarily used a 7-man rotation for most of the year with sporadic cameos from the rest of the bench. This rotation did allow Iowa State to get out to a 14-0 start, but now that conference play is in full swing, you have to wonder if the reliance on the Core Four hurt the development of Iowa State's young guards.
Naz Long, Monte Morris and Matt Thomas have all had their moments and have played big minutes, but with the possible exception of Morris, who's been steady all year, this trio has to do more.
During Iowa State's three-game losing streak, this group combined to score only 8.6 points per game on 27.9% shooting and an even worse 20.5% from three. Morris managed to impact the game in other areas with strong ball handling and defense and Thomas and Long provided at least a decoy outside, but that type of production simply won't cut it.
If you don't believe me, let's go back to Saturday's win over Kansas State. Morris, Thomas and Long managed to combine for 25 points, shot 9-13 from the floor and 4-8 from outside and Morris dished out 5 assists. That 25 points was only one shy of the 26 points that group combined for during the 3-game losing streak. It doesn't take James Carville to realize that better production is needed from the rest of Iowa State's roster.
2. Foreign Policy
Truth be told, most in this country would rather the current administration focus on domestic issues, but it's a valid concern nonetheless. For Iowa State, sitting at 3-3 in conference play, I'd argue that Fred Hoiberg's focus should be solely on making the correct adjustments internally, but in order to get ISU back in the thick of things, it's going to take a concerted effort every time the Cyclones leave Ames if Iowa State is going to finish in the top three of the conference.
ISU has 2/3rds of its conference schedule ahead, which is plenty of time to make a run at Kansas. It all starts by protecting the home court, which Iowa State has been stellar at over the last three seasons, but the difference between a good season and a special season will hinge on how ISU performs on the road. Two enormous chances lie ahead with games at pre-season favorites Kansas and Oklahoma State in the next 6 days. After that, every road game looks winnable, but it won't be easy.
Wins at TCU and shockingly now, Baylor, are musts, but contests at West Virginia and Kansas State will not only look great on the resume, but will give Iowa State a chance to build some separation from the rest of the pack.
3. Developing A Skilled Workforce
This is more of a long term issue, but with Iowa State losing Melvin Ejim and DeAndre Kane (and Bubu Palo) to graduation after this year, it's never too early to start thinking about their replacements. Ejim has been a mainstay in the starting line up for each of his four years in Cardinal and Gold and is steadily climbing the all-time lists. Kane on the other hand has been among the biggest surprises nationally and replacing a guy that made his way onto the Naismith finalist list is going to be a challenge for Hoiberg.
The good news is that transfers Abdel Nader and Jameel McKay are on campus and earning glowing reviews from practice reports and should be able to replace Ejim's production in the front court over the next two seasons.
In the back court, Monte Morris has had a superb freshman season and looks like a guy that could develop into a future star. Until Saturday, he hadn't turned the ball over in conference play and has progresively gained more confidence with his shot and dribble drive. Matt Thomas and Naz Long have been a little less consistent, but each has the potential to light it up from outside and both have shown enough promise to make me think they can turn into pretty solid players long term. There's also Sherron Dorsey-Walker, who hasn't quite found his way into the rotation yet, but as just a redshirt freshman, still has plenty of time to make an impact. There's also Clayton Custer. The Kansas prep is a top 100 prospects according to Rivals and will give Hoiberg another point guard in the fold for years to come.
Still, is anyone in that group going to be able to immediately replace Kane's production? The obvious answer is probably no, but guys like Kane are rare enough as is, so with apologies to Moneyball, the focus should be on replacing the aggregate. As for running the show, Morris looks more than capable of being the lead guard and I fully expect the staff to hand the keys over to him for next year. Replacing Kane's toughness and scoring ability is another matter.
Provided nothing crazy happens like Georges Niang deciding to play in Greece, Iowa State should return a pretty solid team. If Hoiberg can add Rashad Vaughn to that mix, it's a team that can win the Big 12 and be top ten good.
Let's say Iowa State doesn't get Vaughn, though, as disappointing as that would be. Where do they go then? With two open scholarships, the Cyclones have some options. There are a number of junior college guards that Hoiberg has his eye on and who knows, maybe another graduate transfer will be available.
Regardless, I'm of the opinion that a scoring guard with a little size (6'3"-6'5") is going to be priority number one for the staff with or without Vaughn.
Let's Talk Kansas
Alright, back to the issue at hand. Iowa State travels to Lawrence to take on a red-hot Kansas team that sits at 6-0 in conference play. A little over two weeks ago, the Jayhawks came into Ames and left with a 77-70 victory. It was one of the ugliest offensive performances Iowa State has had under Fred Hoiberg. Iowa State did everything needed to win except for make shots.
To be completely honest, I don't see the Cyclones winning this game tonight. Kansas has rounded into form and Bill Self has this bunch playing like a team that's not only capable of cutting down the nets, but potentially a favorite to do so. I didn't think it was a great match up two weeks ago and I don't think it's a great match up for Iowa State tonight.
In conference play, Kansas sits atop the league in scoring offense, scoring margin, field goal percentage, field goal percentage defense, 3-point field goal percentage, rebounding margin and blocked shots and is among the top half in a whole lot of other categories. The bottom line is that these guys are playing exceptional basketball right now.
Add in the decided home court advantage that Kansas has in Allen Fieldhouse and this one could potentially get away from Iowa State. Potentially being the key word there.
The fact is, I expect Iowa State to have a good showing on Wednesday night and while I don't see the Cyclones winning, I think this one could come down to the wire and if it does come down to the wire, there's always a chance.
I tried to find some stat that Iowa State could exploit and would prove to be key in springing the upset, but the only way that you beat Kansas in AFH is to plain and simple be better than them over the course of 40 minutes (John Madden would be so proud).
That's been an issue Iowa State has struggled with despite their 15-3 record. On Saturday, Iowa State looked like they were going to run away with a double-digit victory, but an inexplicable 8-0 run in only 33 seconds of game time allowed Kansas State to get right back into it and made for a nervous finish.
If Iowa State manages to get a double digit lead tonight, it won't be enough. Kansas will fight and claw back into the game it's going to take a complete 40-minute effort to win.
I don't see it happening, but we watch sports because we don't know what's going to happen, so here's to hoping.
Kansas 82 - Iowa State 76
Tip: 8:00 PM CST
TV: ESPNU with Clay Matvick and Darin Horn on the call
Radio: Available via the Cyclone Radio Network
Cyclones.com Game Notes: Here you go
Kansas' SBN Site: Rock Chalk Talk