Editor's Note: We're now less than a month away from Iowa State playing an exhibition game against something called Viterbo on Friday, November 7th. The Cyclones will play one that counts a week later against Oakland (Michigan) on the 14th. We kick off the pre-season coverage by previewing the non-conference schedule.
One season ago, Iowa State got out to a 14-0 start that ultimately propelled the Cyclones into the national rankings and set the stage for a Big 12 tournament championship, a three-seed in the NCAA tournament and the program's first Sweet 16 since the 2000 team made the Elite 8. It was all pretty fantastic to say the least.
This year, however, the stakes are higher. Iowa State will likely wind up somewhere in the top 15 neighborhood of most pre-season polls. The Cyclones figure to offer a serious challenge to Kansas' 11-year reign over the Big 12 and once the tournament rolls around, the goal is to get to Indianapolis.
Some will argue that the college basketball regular season is fairly irrelevant and the non-conference slate is a particular waste of time, but I don't buy it. Entering last year unranked, Iowa State entered the national radar with wins over #7 Michigan, #23 Iowa and at BYU. The unbeaten start provided the foundation the Cyclones needed to make it out of the first weekend of the tournament for the first time of the Fred Hoiberg era.
This year's non-conference schedule doesn't look quite as challenging at first glance, making it arguably even more crucial that The Mayor's crew doesn't enter conference play with an embarrassing blemish in tow.
The Marquee Match Ups
CBE Hall of Fame Classic - Nov. 24-25 - Kansas City, MO - Sprint Center
Iowa State will return to the Sprint Center for the first time since cutting down the nets after defeating Baylor in the conference tournament championship game last March. ISU will square off against what should be a less than stellar Alabama outfit. Assuming the Cyclones can roll the Tide, they will face the winner of Arizona State and Maryland. Neither the Sun Devils nor the Terps figure to be particularly strong this year, but Maryland at least has the look of a team that could be dancing in March. Should we have an ISU-Maryland final, it would also be a great chance for Iowa State to notch a win over a quality Big Ten foe.
Arkansas - Thursday, December 4th - Ames, IA - Hilton Coliseum
Under Mike Anderson, Arkansas has been one of the toughest outs in the country at home, but has really struggled on the road (aside from winning in Lexington last year), which kept the Hogs out of last year's tournament. We all wanted Kentucky, Florida or Missouri, but Arkansas wasn't a horrible fall back. They'll at least provide a much stiffer test than Auburn did a year ago and shouldn't hurt the strength of schedule.
@ Iowa - Friday, December 12th - Iowa City, IA - Carver-Hawkeye Arena
Last year's game was a classic and don't think for one second that Hawkeye players and fans have forgotten. The last time Iowa State made the trip east on I-80, they came away with a frustrating 80-71 loss. Iowa did lose Roy Devyn Marble, Melsahn Basabe and Zach McCabe (addition by subtration?) from last year's team, but return the bulk of Fran McCaffery's "deep" rotation. Iowa lost four times at home a season ago and this will be their first major test on their home court. Iowa State will be without the services of Jameel McKay, who doesn't become eligible until December 20th.
Hy-Vee Big Four Classic - Saturday, December 20th vs. Drake - Des Moines, IA - Wells Fargo Arena
Drake should be salty this year, but that's not why I'm highlighting this game. This is the day the aforementioned McKay will make his Cyclone debut.
South Carolina - Saturday, January 3rd - Brooklyn, NY - Barclays Center
When this game was announced, a resounding "meh" was heard throughout Cyclone land and while that sentiment isn't unfounded, this game should be a solid enough test before entering conference play. Our old pal Frank Martin will bring an improving program to Brooklyn and if anything, this will be another chance for Iowa State to gain experience playing in a neutral arena (and maybe a chance to secure a bid from New York native, Cheick Diallo). And if you're really searching for a reason to be excited about this game, if the football team fails to make a bowl game, this could be your New Year's "bowl trip".
*Bonus* Georgia State - Monday, November 17th - Ames, IA - Hilton Coliseum
This game terrifies me. The Panthers went 25-9 last year, including 17-1 in the Sun Belt. They return their top two players in R.J. Hunter (18.3 PPG) and Kentucky transfer, Ryan Harrow (17.9 PPG). More importantly, however, is the fact that Iowa State will be without the services of McKay and then Abdel Nader and Matt Thomas. The latter two will be serving suspensions stemming from their off-season run-ins with police. A starting five of Georges Niang, Dustin Hogue, Bryce Dejean-Jones, Naz Long and Monte Morris doesn't concern me, but only having Daniel Edozie, Sherron Dorsey-Walker, Clayton Custer and Georgious Tsalmpouris to come off the bench does.
Iowa State needed a few fortunate bounces to run the table during last year's non-conference slate and this year won't be any different. The Cyclones are undoubtedly better on paper than any team they will square off against over these 12 games, but will this team be able to hit the ground running?
Provided there's no hangover affect from last March and the chemistry is right, I don't see why this team can't be perfect prior to conference play, but getting out to that kind of start is rare enough for the blue bloods in college basketball that I struggle to really believe it can happen two years in a row.
In any event, I just can't see more than one loss on the ledger given how this non-conference sets up. Where that loss could come (if at all) is anyone's guess.