I've been dreading writing this preview for some time. I knew at some point I was going to have to write it, though I just didn't know when. Iowa State was bound to lose a game and the deeper into the season the Cyclones got, the more likely it was to happen. And if we're being completely honest, it didn't exactly take the gift of foresight to envision an imminent loss on the horizon.
Mostly ranked on reputation, one could argue that the Cyclones haven't played a full 40 minutes since returning from the Emerald Coast Classic in Florida, leading many to question this team's true ceiling (among other things). As concerning as Saturday's loss to UNI was and in addition to a prolonged stretch of what could often be called, uninspired play, it would appear that a host of predictable narratives have made their way to the forefront.
But that's what this season was always going to be all about.
Get to Houston
Send this senior class out as legends
And that's really it. That's all this season has been about since UAB stunned the Cyclones last March. The goals were simple and defined. Even in the aftermath of losing Fred Hoiberg, the team's resolve was unwavering and the mission was unchanged.
But while the ultimate goals were easy to define, it was always going to be the process that was difficult. If you want to unseat Kansas, it means not slipping up on a random Tuesday in February on the road in Lubbock. If you want to get to the Final 4, it means you have to win 4 games against very good teams in the most unpredictable spectacle in sports. If you want to leave a lasting legacy, it means doing remarkable things that exceptional athletes that preceded you were never able to accomplish.
You can't win your conference, nor can you guarantee a spot in the Final 4 based on what you do in December, but if you're going to have a crisis of faith, so to speak, maybe now is the time for it. And you know what, can you blame this team and these players for feeling the pressure?
Sure, this crew asked for this standard, but just think about what type of stress this team endures daily. A handful of these guys are auditioning for a career in basketball and not just that, but basketball at its highest level. Every night out is a proving ground, knowing that scouts are in attendance, watching their every move. And for those that aren't quite on that elite level, they're battling for valuable minutes and grinding just to stay in the rotation. Regardless, they collectively know that every time they take the floor, they have to be perfect. Once the underdog, they're now the hunted. They wear that top 10 ranking on their shoulders on every possession and are expected to be optimal. Each mishap is its own minor crisis and manifests itself into a series of critical Tweets and message board banter.
And if all that wasn't enough, they're being asked to be flawless while being guided by a coach and a staff that they're unfamiliar with.
But hey, this is what they asked for. They brought this on themselves and it's all they talked about all summer and fall. Were they ever really ready for the heat, though?
A lot of you have probably adjusted your expectations of this team. Between the spells of confounding play, Naz Mitrou-Long being shut down and now this loss to UNI, just finishing in the top 3 of the Big 12 and making it out of the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament sounds pretty good. I'm guessing a lot of us would sign up for that right now.
Unfortunately, there's not just one thing that needs to be fixed at this moment. Everything and everybody has to be better. The advanced stats crowd will argue that there's not much Iowa State can do about defending the 3-point line, but I doubt they'd object to the Cyclones doing a much better job of opponent recognition and knowing who they can leave open on the perimeter and who they can't. Similarly, it's tough to quantify what better ball movement looks like, but even the basketball novices among us (and let's face it, we're all basketball novices) know that Iowa State seems to have lost some of that magic on occasion.
The list goes on and there are more minor nuances on every possession than any of our remedial minds can comprehend. I'm not going to pretend to know what Steve Prohm needs to do to get Iowa State playing better basketball, but I do know this team has provided him with plenty of teachable moments.
In the grand scheme of things, tonight's game probably doesn't mean much and I'm not sure if the end result will impact Iowa State's seed come March, but it sure feels like an important game. Can the players and coach alike endure the grind? Can they maneuver The Process?
So Who Wins This Damn Thing?
I'm not even going to bother breaking down the Bearcats (sometimes you get what you pay for here at WRNL). Mick Cronin's team is very good. They're elite defensively, have great size and athleticism across the board and having watched them a few times already this year, they're tough as hell.
I don't think it's much of a stretch to say that Cincinnati is the best team the Cyclones have played yet and if Iowa State is going to win this game, they're going to have to play exceptionally well. Given that this is the first road test for this team, it's impossible to know how they'll respond.
Or is it?
Tonight's game is the type of game that top ten teams relish. It's games like these that make them top ten teams. It's what separates them from everyone else and the likes of Georges Niang, Monte Morris and the rest have played in these types of venues before.
I don't doubt that Iowa State is going to play with great effort and intensity tonight, but I just don't know if they're going to win.
Cincinnati 75 - Iowa State 71
Tip: 6 p.m. CST
TV: ESPN2 (Fran Fraschilla will be on color commentary, so that's a good omen, right?)
Radio: Cyclone Radio Network
Cyclones.Com Game Notes: Available here
Cincinnati SB Nation Site: Down The Drive