NEW YORK — For a state that’s always trying to get positive light shined on it, it wasn’t Iowa’s best weekend.
First, it was learned the University of Iowa deep-sixed the request of HBO’s “Girls” to film on campus, tossing away a chance to perhaps make the state and university cool to a national audience. A national younger audience.
Then, Iowa State’s opportunity to impress the sports sector of the nation’s cultural capital was doused Friday night when the Cyclones lost to Connecticut in an NCAA East Regional semifinal at Madison Square Garden.
The Sweet 16 was great and all, but a battle for a Final Four berth Sunday at the Garden against Michigan State on CBS? Now that would have been a spotlight.
Connecticut. Michigan State. The names of Elite Eight teams don’t change much, do they? Kentucky. Michigan. Florida. Arizona. In many other seasons, it’s Duke, Kansas, Louisville, North Carolina.
For a variety of reasons, it’s so hard for outsiders to break through and join that list. Is Iowa State coming close? It might be.
Winning NCAA games three straight seasons isn’t something that happens everywhere. Defeating three of the aforementioned teams — Michigan, Kansas and North Carolina — isn’t, either.
The Cyclones were so near to a Sweet 16 berth last year, but Ohio State’s Aaron Craft of Ohio State hit a 3-pointer to prevent overtime. This year, the natural what-if regarded Georges Niang’s breaking a foot in Iowa State’s NCAA opener.
Maybe what-ifs will eventually be replaced by whats. Elite programs are elite because they seamlessly replace departed stars, and are molded over the course of a season to be good enough and tough enough to handle big moments. That certainly has applied to the Cyclones.
Who loses two first-team all-conference players (Melvin Ejim and DeAndre Kane) and feels fine about next season? ISU Coach Fred Hoiberg, for one. He looks at next year’s starting five and sees Niang, and his 16.5 points and 3.6 assists per game, as its heart.
“He always plays with a chip on his shoulder,” Hoiberg said Friday night. “That chip’s going to be pretty big this off-season.”
Then there’s forward Dustin Hogue, who took to Madison Square Garden as if it were a playground in his hometown of Yonkers, N.Y. Hogue had 34 points in a performance people would be writing poems about in Ames right now had the Cyclones won.
“He was an animal,” Hoiberg said.
The starting guards will be sophomore-to-be Monte Morris for sure, and perhaps Naz Long if Hoiberg doesn’t continue to use Long in the sixth-man, 3-point, flame-throwing role he had this season. Without Long, Iowa State’s season would have been over a week ago.
Morris kept getting better as the season progressed. Shabazz Napier owned the first-half for UConn, but Morris clamped down on him after that, even blocking a couple of the All-American’s shots.
Offensively, Morris also has the goods. His totals of 134 assists to just 28 turnovers are absurd for the most-veteran of veterans, and Morris was a rookie. Plus, he stuck 40 percent of his 3-pointers.
“He’s going to have a great career at Iowa State,” said Hoiberg.
Then you get to what has happened regularly at ISU under its current coach. Players you don’t now know, or don’t know very well, emerge to become important Cyclones in a hurry.
The one causing the most enthusiasm right now is Jameel McKay, a 6-9, 210-pounder who gives the team something it has lacked, a true post presence. He averaged 16.2 points and 8.9 rebounds over his two years at Indian Hills Community College in Ottumwa, where Hogue also played.
Incoming freshman Clayton Custer of Overland Park, Kan., will join holdover Matt Thomas as guards who can shoot. Abdel Nader is a 6-6 transfer who averaged a team-high 13.1 points for Northern Illinois last season.
“Monte, Naz and Jameel, Clayton Custer coming in … I love our group going forward,” Hoiberg said.
With 28 wins, a Big 12 tourney title and a Sweet 16 ride, this season was an unqualified success for the Cyclones. But it feels more like part of a continued upward climb than a peak.