Optimism is high for the collegiate basketball teams in the state.
After Thursday’s victory for Iowa, and despite Iowa State’s loss in the conference tournament, this March is shaping up much better than previous years. Although the Hawkeyes face a difficult opponent today and may see their conference tournament title aspirations disappear, the programs look like they’re ready to reach the next level.
For Iowa State, head coach Fred Hoiberg’s second year has reminded many Iowa State fans of the glory years of the 1990s and early 2000s. Since I grew up watching those teams (and was spoiled because the program hasn’t been the same since) I’ve been ready for a consistent winner for about a decade.
The Mayor hasn’t revived the Cyclones through a traditional route. Using mostly transfers, Iowa State started off slow, but caught steam during the Big 12 season, cementing the team’s first NCAA tournament bid since 2005.
What makes this team so special is the environment they have created in Ames. Hilton Coliseum is one of the best venues for basketball in the country, and when it’s rocking, there’s not too many teams other than the Cyclones that can win there. This year, Hilton Magic has returned, with two top-10 upsets and definite home court advantage over lesser opponents.
Hoiberg has rejuvenated a program that sat dormant for almost 10 years. Not since Larry Eustachy’s improbable runs in the early 2000s has this much enthusiasm circulated around Iowa State. No matter what happens in the NCAA tournament, Hoiberg has established a program that looks to be peaking. Many of the regular players should return next year, making it appear that the Cyclones are back for the time being.
Hopefully, Hoiberg, an Ames native and Iowa State legend, sticks around to keep the Cyclones charging.
Although the Hawks won’t make the NCAA tournament (barring a Big 10 tournament championship), this year has provided plenty of moments for happiness.
Like Hoiberg, head coach Fran McCaffery is also in his second year, and things appear to be heading in the right direction.
Wins over Wisconsin (twice), Michigan and Indiana show how far the program has come in one year. All of those teams were ranked during the matchup, and Iowa handled Michigan and Indiana with ease.
There are a few head-scratching losses on Iowa’s resume, like the massive beatings against Ohio State and Michigan State, and a 16-point loss to Campbell and a home loss to Nebraska. Being inconsistent like that isn’t a good sign, but any team that has four wins against top-25 opponents, is doing something right.
Plenty of teams heading into next week’s NCAA tournament don’t have the quality wins that Iowa owns. McCaffery has won everywhere he has been, and it appears he has Iowa on the winning track.
With more consistency, Iowa may be able to sneak into the Big Dance sooner, rather than later.
And although UNI had a disappointing season (especially since it opened the season with wins against Colorado State, Iowa and Iowa State), I don’t see the Panthers down for too long. Head coach Ben Jacobson is too good to allow another disappointing season to happen, and UNI should be back.
However, I don’t expect them to dominate the in-state series like in the past. With Iowa State and Iowa improving, the month of December may get a little more interesting, and hopefully next March, a few more dancing shoes will be handed out to Iowa teams.
Scott Levine is the Associate Editor of the Clinton Herald. He can be reached at email@example.com.