COLUMN: The Cyclones’ next two games are bigger than you think

Lucas Grundmeier

It’s hard not to feel good about the prospects of the ISU men’s basketball team, based not only on the Cyclones’ 10-2 start, but also on the manner in which they’ve attained it.

Curtis Stinson’s 15.3 points per game could become a freshman record for Iowa State. (Several players have averaged more in their first seasons for the Cyclones before freshmen became eligible for varsity play.) All-American and current Chicago Bull Marcus Fizer averaged 14.9 points in 1997-98 before blossoming to even greater things as a sophomore and junior.

For this year’s Cyclones, back-to-back wins over Missouri and Nebraska bode well for a couple of reasons.

First, defending the home court is obviously a characteristic of all top teams. Second, Iowa State answered a big question about its depth, with Andrew Skoglund, Reggie George and Damion Staple spelling starter Jared Homan and Jackson Vroman more than ably against a Missouri team with a seemingly endless supply of big bodies and a Husker squad that ran its inside players all over the court.

The Cyclones definitely started “down” against Northern Colorado Monday but never panicked during their methodical comeback against the overmatched Bears. Certainly, it was not a bad time for a slow start.

Now, the attention turns to a critical two-game stretch for Iowa State. Every game helps determine the team’s postseason fortunes, but these two results more than any others will help predict those fortunes in the next two months.

At Colorado, versus Iowa — the Cyclones’ first Big 12 road trip, and a horribly misplaced intrastate rivalry. Two wins, and this team is set up to go on a memorable roll. Two losses, and the Cyclones will be hard-pressed to pick up enough wins against a schedule with a steadily increasing degree of difficulty to slide into the NCAA Tournament.

The story for Saturday’s rumble with the Buffaloes, of course, will be Iowa State’s string of 17 straight conference losses on the road. Most have been ugly, with only five of the games decided by seven points or less.

The Buffaloes haven’t played many close games at home this year, posting impressive wins over Oregon State and California, but falling hard at home to Richmond and Kansas. Boulder, Colo., has never been particularly friendly to the Cyclones — Iowa State even lost there during its 32-5 Elite Eight season in 2000 when Jaquay Walls made an improbable game-tying shot to force overtime and then took over in the extra session to finish with 42 points in a 102-90 Colorado win.

Even if the Buffaloes prove too much Saturday, Iowa State would likely be able to break the road skid a week later against Baylor, the Big 12’s only team with a losing record. Still, a victory over a strong Colorado team could change Iowa State’s road outlook — the Cyclones haven’t played well away from Hilton yet, beating Drake only on the strength of lights-out shooting from the field and free throw line.

Win or lose, the Iowa game bears all the earmarks of a trap.

Iowa’s ship has been listing badly at the same time Iowa State has been gaining steam. The game is at home, where the Cyclones have looked nearly championship-caliber this season. Iowa coach Steve Alford was finally able to elicit a decent game from the Hawkeyes in his charge Tuesday, pummeling Minnesota in Minneapolis 83-68.

It’s an understatement to say Alford’s Iowa teams have been inconsistent and it’s difficult to believe Iowa could sustain a hot stretch all the way to Wednesday. But doing the difficult-to-believe — like losing to Northwestern at home — is a calling card of the Iowa program right now.

Iowa State should be confident in its team play and home-court advantage, with a charged crowd that will likely be expecting a Cyclone victory.

However, a start similar to Monday’s (which is possible, if the Cyclones come out rusty in what will likely be the season’s biggest game to date, regardless of the Colorado outcome) could stun the crowd and make an ISU win tough.

This team has proved quite a bit already, but two more wins would show us something substantive about this ISU team.