When was the last time you simply enjoyed Iowa State basketball?
Really think about that. The Cyclone program has been ranked in the top 25 for 47 consecutive polls dating back to 2013 and has accomplished some remarkable things during that timespan, but as of late, each victory served as more of a relief and too often, watching this program was frequently burdensome and frustrating.
Iowa State entered this year's campaign with aspirations of chasing a Final Four, but over the last month especially, this team has looked nowhere near capable of achieving that lofty goal. There have been frustrating losses, the Naz Mitrou-Long injury, and a general malaise that seemed to have stricken the program. We doubted Steve Prohm, questioned the toughness of the roster and wondered if this was going to be a lost season.
When we recall how last season ended and then the devastating off-season loss of the beloved Fred Hoiberg, it only compounds how much our resolve as a fan base has been tested. Not only that, but even when Iowa State has won games, they've had to do so by overcoming seemingly insurmountable second-half deficits repeatedly. Literally nothing has come easy.
And then there was Monday night. With #1 Oklahoma in town and the Sooners riding the hot hand of arguably the most dominant player in the country in Buddy Hield, Iowa State had a chance to eliminate that black cloud over the program and rebuild the narrative, and they did just that. Not only that, but it was fun to watch. Damn fun to watch.
Here we are a few days later and we're not talking about the 1-3 start in Big 12 play. We're not talking about a flawed line up being led by a coach presumed to be in over his head. We're not talking about how The Mayor left this program to die.
Not at all. With consecutive wins, hope has been restored as players maligned by social media criticism have responded with their play on the floor, and that coach that many had begun to doubt has displayed some crafty gamesmanship.
With a 13-point road win at Kansas State and now a victory over the #1 team in the country on the resume, Iowa State is finally rounding into that team we all thought they could be. Provided the Cyclones don't slip up on the road at TCU on Saturday, they should make a nice jump in the rankings, and then comes a three game stretch that could define the season.
Iowa State returns to the national spotlight to host #3 Kansas next Monday night before traveling to College Station to battle with a familiar foe in #10 Texas A&M on January 30th. The final contest of this three game gauntlet comes against #6 West Virginia on February 2nd back at home.
That'll be four top 10 teams in five games for the Cyclones, with three of them coming in the raucous rafters of Hilton Coliseum. If there's a more grueling stretch for another team in all of college basketball this season, I haven't seen it. It's a tremendous opportunity for Iowa State to re-establish themselves as a top 10 team and jump back into the Big 12 title conversation. But is this team up to the challenge?
Prohm's fingerprints have been all over the results of the last two games, whether it be switching up defensive schemes, the playing rotation and even laying down the law with holding players accountable to the standards of the program. So far, so good and I think we can all agree that we want to see more.
In this sense, Prohm has served as a guiding force for this roster at a time when they were at their lowest. Perhaps even a sponsor if you will. Too often over the last year or so, the same cast of characters have reverted to the toxic basketball behaviors that have burned them time and time again.
Then again, maybe this veteran-laden group is finally understanding what's at stake. That at least is how it would appear at this point. This program has returned to a good place over the past few days and everyone has played their part.
What we're all eager to see now is if they can sustain this level of play. Have we witnessed the turning point in this season, or have we been blinded by fool's gold? Answers will come soon.