Archive for February, 2009

ISU hoops… what if?

February 26, 2009

Hypotheticals have never really interested me, but let’s think for a minute what might have been with Iowa State’s basketball team.

Humor me here, folks.

The Cyclones are 14-14 overall, 3-10 in the Big 12 heading into Saturday’s game at Texas A&M.

Where would ISU be sitting right now with Wesley Johnson playing the small forward spot? It’s a question I’ve had posed to me numerous times this year.

Is the former standout — who currently sitting out the season at Syracuse waiting to be eligible — the difference between ISU’s season ending after the conference tourney in a few weeks or earning an NIT berth? 

Is an NCAA bid out of the question? I don’t think it is.

A handful of players still keep in contact with Johnson, exchanging text messages and the like. Guard Diante Garrett says he’s caught glimpses of the 6-7 forward on the Orange bench during TV broadcasts. 

But Garrett and his teammates aren’t sitting around lamenting Johnson’s loss in the midst of a disappointing season.

“I just left that in the past. I don’t think about it that much,” Garrett said.

“You can if you want to, but what’s the point,” said guard Bryan Petersen. “Yeah, he was a really talented player and I’m not going to sit here and say he wouldn’t have helped if he was on our team. He probably would have. But you can’t do that. He’s not here and he’s not coming back.”

The talented forward curiously skipping town last May, claiming he and coach Greg McDermott had a falling out. McDermott was surprised to hear of this, to say the least.

I don’t think there’s any question this team would be markedly better with Johnson wearing cardinal and gold (or whatever colors they are).

How much better? That’s up for debate.

I believe he probably gives ISU a half-dozen more victories, which has the program right on the cusp of a postseason berth that it hasn’t had since making the NCAA Tournament during the 2004-05 season.

The Cyclones don’t have an athletic wing player like Johnson, who can score from inside and out, defend and rebound the ball amongst the trees.

They will next season in Marquis Gilstrap, a transfer from Gulf Coast (Fla.) Community College.

That doesn’t help the here and now. Johnson would have been a junior.

His absence has been helpful for players like Garrett, Craig Brackins, Lucca Staiger and Charles Boozer. Boozer has seen the floor far more than he would have if Johnson were here, and done good things.

Garrett and Brackins, both just sophomores, accepted leadership roles as two of the most experienced players on a team made up primarily of freshmen and sophomores.

“It’s given some of these young guys a chance to step up,” Petersen said.

McDermott’s endured some difficult losses in his three seasons as head coach. He saw his top returning player leave the program in consecutive years and may have it happen again if Brackins decides to forgo his final two years of eligibility in favor of the NBA.

And we’ll again be left to wonder, what if?

Fan favorite returns to Hilton

February 22, 2009

It’s been more than a decade since Dedric Willoughby heard the cheers from inside Hilton Coliseum.

The sharpshooting Iowa State guard returned Saturday, honored as one of 15 players on the school’s All-Century team.  He was not in attendance at last year’s big celebration, but got his due at halftime of ISU’s game against Kansas State.

Willoughby’s wife, Vonda, and 7-year-old daughter took it all in with him.

“I was telling my wife I hope I don’t cry,” he said. “I’m not a real emotional guy, but I hope I don’t shed a tear. I love this place. I’m sorry it took me so long to come back.”

Willoughby, who now manages a seafood restaurant in suburban Atlanta, led the Cyclones to a pair of NCAA Tournament appearances from 1995-97. He was a first-team all-conference selection and team MVP both seasons and still holds school records for 3-pointers in a season (102) and a single game (9).

He played 25 career games in the NBA, with the Chicago Bulls and former ISU coach Tim Floyd during the 1999-00 season.

His family of course knew he played basketball professionally. What they didn’t know is how beloved Willoughby is here in Ames.

“The biggest thing about (Saturday) was getting my wife and daughter to get to know this side of me, that i played basketball at this level,” he said.  “They don’t know me as a basketball player.”

Willoughby left town immediately following ISU’s last-second NCAA Tournament loss to UCLA at the Alamodome in San Antonio.

He has not completed his degree, but says he is taking steps to do so.

Willoughby, 34, looks to be in good shape and plays three to four times a week. He said he still bombs away from long distance.

His professional hoops career is over.

“I don’t think i have it in me. I like where I am at right now as far as my family and things,” Willoughby said.

He spoke to the current group of Cyclones Saturday during the team’s pre-game shootaround. His message: appreciate the people who come out to support you. The fan base at ISU is special. 

 “I told the guys to give 110 percent, because this place is going to give you 11o percent. Leave it all out there,” Willoughby said.

He does what he can to keep up with his old team.

“I’ve heard about the Brackins kid and been hearing real good things about him. He’s killin’. He’s a real humble guy, too. Real soft spoken. Reminds me of myself.”

Ahhhh, right.

ISU’s contrasting coordinators

February 19, 2009

One is a bright-eyed, bushy-tailed youngster, bringing a frenetic offensive pace that he’s hoping is exactly the approach Iowa State needs to keep up with its Big 12 competitors. 

The other has been coached successful defenses in three of the six BCS conferences, played for Paul “Bear” Bryant at Alabama and qualifies for senior discounts. 

Tom Herman and Wally Burnham are now the cornerstones of ISU’s rebuilding effort under new head coach Paul Rhoads. 

Cyclone fans should be awfully pleased by that.

Herman is a bright offensive mind that broke a slew of records in his two seasons at Rice. I spoke wih him briefly following ISU’s signing day press conference and he’s an impressive guy.

Very smart, too. He holds a B.S. in business administration, a Masters of Education and is a member of Mensa.

Burnham spent the last nine seasons at South Florida, helping turn that program into one of the best in the Big East. Six of the last seven years the Bulls’ defense ranked among the top 30 nationally.

Burnham also was South Carolina’s defensive coordinator and assistant head coach (1994-98) and coached linebackers at Florida State for nine years under the legendary Bobby Bowden. The Seminoles won a national championship in 1993, Burnham’s final season.

The gray-haired, 67-year-old has tutored some stud linebackers over the years, including Derrick Brooks, Marvin Jones, Paul McGowan and Kawika Mitchell.

Both of ISU’s coordinators also have great recruiting ties to talent-rich areas.

Herman, 33, has spent his entire coaching career in the state of Texas and shouldn’t have much trouble convincing receivers or quarterbacks they won’t have fun playing his brand of offense.

Burnham helped build South Florida into a consistent winner and a fearsome defense primarily with in-state players. Rhoads hopes that can pay dividends on the recruiting trail.

“Wally knows the Florida high schools like no other man,” Rhoads said.

With the hiring Wednesday of Courtney Messingham — a Waterloo native, former Northern Iowa player and most recently the offensive coordinator for former ISU and UNI coach Terry Allen at Missouri State — Rhoads’ coaching staff is nearly complete.

Iowa State fans should be ecstatic in getting Herman and Burnham. They’ve shown they can get it done at other places. Can their schemes win here in Ames?

Brackins vs. KU, Round 2

February 17, 2009

Craig Brackins’ 42-point, 14-rebound outburst last month against Kansas has been a life-changing experience for the star forward.

Brackins’ profile has exploded since then, and so has his belief that he can be a dominating player in the Big 12 Conference.

“It boosted my confidence up a lot,” Brackins said.

In the six games since, Iowa State’s 6-10 sophomore has averaged 21.0 points and 9.0 rebounds per contest,  shot 49.5% from the field (50 of 101) and made 20 of 30 free-throw attempts.

NBA talk, barely a whisper before that night, has gained momentum. One web site projects Brackins as the No. 20 pick in next year’s draft should he forgo his final two years of eligibility.

That’s what happens when you drop 42 on the defending national champs and you are behind only Oklahoma ‘s Blake Griffin — a lock to go No. 1 overall in the draft — in the league’s most prominent statistical categories.

Everything is different now. He’s the man, and with this Iowa State team, unfortunately a solo act.

“On the court it’s a lot more attention with defenses,” Brackins responded when asked what’s changed since his performance against KU. “Off the court it’s a lot more eyes (on me), people around campus and stuff.”

The Jayhawks, who won the first meeting by a score of 82-67, get another crack at Brackins Wednesday night at Allen Fieldhouse.

They didn’t double-team him much in Ames, picking their spots, but mostly checking him straight up.

They paid for it, but the rest of the Cyclones didn’t do their part. Iowa State coach Greg McDermott is expecting a similar defensive strategy this time around.

Brackins isn’t.

“I don’t think they are going to let me breathe and proably try to make it a lot tougher than last time,” he said.

Brackins was 11 of 19 from the field and 17 of 21 at the free-throw line. And his field goals weren’t bunnies, either.

He buried three 3-pointers. Most of the shots were contested.

“He made some hard shots,” KU coach Bill Self said Monday in comments in reporters. “We can probably guard him better,  but he was really good that day. We’ll try to come up with some ways to maybe limit his good touches, but he’s going to probably score some points.”

Brackins was a talented player as a freshman, that was evident.

He now has become an elite player in the Big 12. And, according to McDermott, Brackins could be even better next season if he sticks around.

He’s a better practice player. He’s more focused. Double teams don’t spook him like they used to. His leadership skills have grown strong.

“The exciting thing about Craig is that I don’t think he’s reached his ceiling,” McDermott said. “His body can get better and he can improve in a lot of parts of his game, which is really scary.”

The Cyclones don’t need Brackins to pump in 42 to win Wednesday.

They’ll take 25 and seven assists. ISU is at its best when the perimeter players are hitting shots from the outside off of feeds from Brackins.

More often than not, they haven’t been able to do that, which is why the Cyclones are 13-12 and 2-8 in conference play.

ISU was clicking early in last Saturday’s loss at Oklahoma State. Shots were falling as Brackins was passing out of double teams to open teammates.

“Hopefully that can continue for a whole game,” Brackins said. “If they shoot with confidence we’ll be OK.”

Must-see TV for Cyclones

February 13, 2009

What got into Iowa State’s basketball team Wednesday night in its 70-42 obliteration of Colorado?

A viewing of Missouri’s floor-storming victory Monday night over Kansas. More to the point, a handful of plays down the stretch that made the difference for the Tigers in ruining KU’s unblemished league record.

Coach Greg McDermott was so impacted by MU guard J.T. Tiller’s inspired, relentless play in the final minutes that he felt the need to show some of them to his struggling team. It worked.

“He (Tiller) had a whole bunch of hustle plays, getting down on the floor for the ball and getting after it on the defensive end,” said ISU guard Diante Garrett. “That fueled our fire and we came out yesterday (Tuesday) in practice hungry to get the W.

“It motivated us and got in our head. Coach Mac talked to us right after we watched it and told us that’s what we have to do to get to that next level.”

The Cyclones were outstanding defensively, especially during a first half where they led 37-9 at halftime, a Big 12 record for fewest points scored in a half.

Tiller’s impressive effort a few nights earlier — helping MU rally from a 14-point halftime deficit — was one of the catalysts.

“If that’s where we want to get to, that’s what we have to start striving for,” said forward Alex Thompson.

Iowa State plays at Oklahoma State Saturday afternoon. Will they pop Tiller and Mizzou in the VCR again for inspiration?

“Maybe we can watch some of what we did (Wednesday) and learn what we did right,” Garrett said.

OSU isn’t having an OSU-like season, at just 3-6 in Big 12 play, but ISU hasn’t won in Gallagher-Iba Arena in their last 14 tries.  It won’t be easy.

On the bright side…

February 8, 2009

It’s not easy being an Iowa State men’s basketball fan right now. Six in a row have gone to the bad guys, the majority of them with relative ease.

Opponent’s average margin of victory in those games has been 15.2 points.

Saturday’s 82-68 loss to Missouri was at least encouraging offensively. It wasn’t all Craig Brackins.

Five Cyclones were in double figures, including reserve big man Jamie Vanderbeken, who has been an offensive blessing of late, despite the team’s lack of success.

JVB is averaging 13.5 points over the last three games, while making 14 of 22 (63.6 percent) shots from the field.

“Coach has been on me to get in the gym and get shots up,” Vanderbeken said. “I was struggling early in the season with my shot. I’m getting reps in and it’s coming for me right now.”

Vanderbeken was recruited for the sole purpose of stretching defenses with his outside shooting ability.

Brackins can rule the paint. Vanderbeken, formerly an Iowa recruit when Steve Alford was coach, toes the 3-point line waiting for the kick out.

“Craig demands a doble team or he’ll rip defenses apart,” he said. “I just try to find an open spot.”

He’s also developed into a decent defender and rebounder. Can you believe the guy never played man-to-man defense in his life before getting ISU?

 

Missouri, meanwhile, is on a serious roll. The Tigers will crack the Top 25 poll for the first time in Coach Mike Anderson’s tenure — and just in time for their Big Monday Border War match-up with Kansas.

The Tigers are loaded with positives. 

They have depth, versatility, scoring options, a defense that can rattle any team’s cage, good guard play… let’s just say Iowa State Coach Greg McDermott came away even more impressed than he was when Mizzou blasted the Cyclones, 77-46, last month in Columbia, Mo.

“I said the first time we played them that they could end up being the best team in our half of the league,” McDermott said. “If they play like that will be.”

The Tigers are now 20-4 overall and 7-2 in the conference, one place behind Kansas. The Jayhawks, despite losing their entire starting five, improved to 19-4 and 8-0 in the league with a win over Oklahoma State Saturday.

Should be must-see-TV Monday night. I’ll be watching.

Another loss in Cyclone family

February 5, 2009

Iowa State’s athletic family has endured some tragic losses over the last several years.

The football team in particular has been hit hard. Players Stevie Hicks, Cris Love, Ennis Haywood, Matt Grosserode and Justin Eilers have passed on far too early in their lives.

Add in the deaths of basketball star Barry Stevens, radio voice Pete Taylor, head coach Glen Anderson, star gymnast Marie Rae Sopper and longtime sports information director Harry Burrell, and it’s been a cruel twist of fate for those who knew them.

Another former great died this week. Here is Iowa State’s release from Wednesday:

Dwight Nichols, a Korean War veteran who became the All-American captain of Iowa State’s celebrated 1959 “Dirty Thirty” team, died Monday in Dallas, Texas.

He was 74.

“Our hearts, thoughts and prayers go out to the Nichols family,” said Iowa State head coach Paul Rhoads. “If you know Iowa State football, then you know the Dirty Thirty. If you know the Dirty Thirty, you know about Dwight Nichols.  There isn’t a tougher football player in Iowa State history.”

Nichols, a Knoxville native, was a force as a sophomore in 1957, leading the Big Seven Conference and ranking third in the country in total offense.

He was named the conference’s Most Valuable Player in 1958, amassing 1,172 yards in total offense. Nichols not only led the conference in total offense, but also in rushing. His school-record 815 rushing yards ranked him third in the country and he finished the year fourth in the country in punt returns.

Nichols turned out to be a perfect fit in Iowa State’s single-wing offense.

In 1959, Nichols led the famous “Dirty Thirty” squad, a team that shrank from 55 to 30 players before the first game of the season.

The Cyclones earned their nickname from trainer Warren Ariail after trudging off a muddy field in a season-opening win at Drake. Iowa State fought to a 7-3 record, including a season-ending 35-12 loss at Oklahoma that ended the Cyclones’ dream of a Big Seven title and Orange Bowl appearance.

Nichols spurned pro football and went on to a successful career, earning a master’s degree while working in financial markets and insurance.

If the Dirty Thirty was Iowa State’s most beloved team, Nichols was its star, becoming only the second player in Big Seven history to lead the conference in offense three times.

As a senior in 1959, he was named first-team All-America. His all-Big Seven selection marked the first time a Cyclone football player had received the honor three times in a half-century. Nichols was the first ISU player to place among the top 10 vote-getters in the Heisman Trophy balloting, finishing eighth.

Nichols closed his career as the all-time Big Seven rusher with 2,232 yards on 638 carries. His 638 carries ranked second in NCAA history at the time.

Nichols ended his career second in Big Seven history with 3,949 yards of total offense.