In my business, you get conditioned to be skeptical. When coaches say things, there often are motives and agendas involved. But not always.
When Northern Iowa beat Wichita State by 15 points in the 2010 Missouri Valley Conference men’s basketball championship game, Wichita State Coach Gregg Marshall said this about UNI:
They’ll win games in the NCAA Tournament. They’ll win at least one if not two games in the NCAA Tournament.
UNI hadn’t won an NCAA game since 1990 when he said that. But the Panthers beat UNLV in the first round, then shocked Kansas in the second round.
In 1999, the upstart St. Louis Rams had just knocked off the San Francisco 49ers to improve to 4-0. During the press conference of Rams Coach Dick Vermeil, 49ers General Manager interrupted things by coming in, hugging Vermeil, and saying “You’re going all the way, Dick.”
“Don’t say that,” Vermeil replied, knowing the season was just one-fourth over.
But his Rams, piloted by quarterback Kurt Warner, did just that.
Tuesday night in Ames, my skeptical sensors were raised again when Baylor Coach Scott Drew said this about Iowa State after his Bears endured an 87-72 loss to the Cyclones at Hilton Coliseum:
“Iowa State, to me, is a team that can win a national-championship,” Drew said.
When I heard that I immediately thought Drew is trying to put some burden on the 14-0 Cyclones. But maybe he simply means it. And note, the operative word in his comment was “can,” not “should” or “will.”
There are three months of basketball between now and the Final Four. Iowa State not only has little margin of error when it comes to injuries with a seven-player rotation, but has a schedule that isn’t to be envied. There are still two games left with Kansas and Oklahoma State, still eight road games in a real good league. Saturday’s date at Oklahoma (12-2 going into its home game against Kansas tonight) is all the Cyclones need to worry about, and they turn around and host Kansas two days later.
Kansas has won nine consecutive Big 12 titles. The road to the Big 12 title goes through Lawrence, even if the Jayhawks lost three times in nonconference play including a home defeat to San Diego State Sunday. Bill Self’s young team will mesh, it’s just a question of how soon. That doesn’t mean a tenth-straight title is coming. Oklahoma State has Marcus Smart, which means Oklahoma State is really good. If anyone beats Baylor at Baylor, they will have done something special. And anyone who wins at Oklahoma, Kansas State and West Virginia is going to be one win ahead of at least some other contender.
But if you’re Iowa State and can’t savor a 14-0 start, Top Ten ranking, and the hosannas that are coming in from near and far, something’s not right. Who doesn’t want to stop and smell a rose in Iowa in a frigid January?
What struck me after Tuesday’s game in Hilton Coliseum was how Baylor guard Gary Franklin sounded more like a fan than someone who had just been beaten.
Franklin is a senior guard who had 15 points and four assists Tuesday. His team had already lost to current No. 2 Syracuse and beaten current No. 16 Kentucky this year, and he was asked how Iowa State compares to those two clubs.
“I think that’s when I turn into a fan,” he said. “I would like to see that matchup. Syracuse, that zone, no one can compare to that. Kentucky — I would think Iowa State is a more veteran-like team. I feel like they’re more mature. Kentucky has so many freshmen. So that would be a great matchup as well.”
Said Drew: “We’ve been very good defensively. We couldn’t do anything with them tonight.”
For all the raves ISU guard DeAndre Kane got for his 30-point, 9-rebound, 8-assist game, senior forward Melvin Ejim was a glue guy with 18 points. Kane has taken his star turn, but Ejim is the rock, a steady Eddie who, like Ejim, can’t easily be defined by position.
“One guy that’s been here four years now and just blows me away is Melvin,” Iowa State Coach Fred Hoiberg said.
“Here he is a senior. I gave him the credit for bringing the guys together. He’s all about the right thngs.
“When it gets a little loose in practice, he’s the guy who pulls it back together. He’s our communicator. When we bring all these new pieces in, when you’ve got guys like him and have guys like Georges Niang and have guys like Naz Long, it’s instant chemistry-builders. Everybody’s included, and that’s how you do it.
“They’re together a lot more with each other than they are with the staff. The good teams, from my experience, are the ones that can police themselves and get along with each other. … That stuff carries over.”
When asked about Drew using the term “national championship” in the same sentence as “Iowa State,” Hoiberg said “I’m sorry, say that again.”
The reporter did, and Hoiberg again replied “I’m sorry, say that again,” pretending he couldn’t hear it.
“Well, we’ve got a lot of work to do,” he said. “We play Oklahoma Saturday, that’s all I know.”
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