Ok, I know I know. Iowa State is about to be on a 9 game winning streak (assuming they beat the mighty Muskrats of Maryland Eastern Shore), and hasn’t lost in over a month. In that span they have taken down 3 top 100 Kenpom teams, and 2 other average teams, with 4 of those wins on neutral courts. Spirits are high, compared to two games into the season after the loss to then 208th ranked Milwaukee. That game was the worst home loss for Iowa State since the Cyclones lost to South Dakota State in 2009, nearly a decade ago. That is the only other loss to a team of that caliber in Hilton in the past 15 years. In a word, it was awful.
However, switching Nick Weiler-Babb,
who I thought would be passed by freshman Terrance Lewis for a starting spot this year who I have always been extremely high on, to PG, and getting Cameron Lard and Hans Brase on the court, along with Lindell Wigginton’s ascension from lost freshman to rookie phenom have catapulted expectations for this ISU squad to the point that some are talking about a possible NCAA Tourney berth. For a couple reasons, I think it’s time to pump the brakes and continue a cautiously optimistic and low expectation viewpoint for a little bit longer. Here’s why.
Iowa State’s current path
Kenpom rates every game left in the season for what chances each team has to win. Let’s assume a win next Wednesday for simplicity sake, ISU will be 9-2 with 19 games remaining in the regular season. That’s 18 conference games against by far the best conference in college basketball, and one additional non-conference game hosting #23 ranked Tennessee. Kansas State in 2017 has a similar profile to what I believe would be the minimum threshold to make it into the NCAA Tourney. They played in a similarly tough B12 conference last year, with an easier non-conference schedule but had no bad non-conference losses. They went 8-10 in conference and lost to Tennessee in the B12/SEC challenge. So, the target is to get to 8 wins in the final 19 games in this discussion. KSU also won a game in Kansas City, but for simplicity sake we’ll ignore that. More wins would be better, as KSU only made it into the play in game, but for this article’s purpose we will pretend that the play in game counts as the real NCAA Tournament – which is of course ridiculous.
ISU is currently predicted to win 6.26 games out of those 19. I know, that is a bleak number. It shows how brutal the remaining schedule is. Literally every game left is against a top-100 opponent (adjusted for location), and every game is against a top 50 Kenpom opponent, straight up.
Some have said that if ISU wins 2 of the first 3 conference games, that should put ISU on track, and initially I said the exact same thing. This is the easiest stretch of the conference slate for ISU in terms of opponent strength and game location. Unfortunately, even starting 2-0 hosting KSU and UT, the amount of wins expected out of the 19 games only jumps to 7.23. If you assume a loss in the other game, you wind up with a prediction of 6.9 wins. This would be a “nice” start, but the Cyclones would still be 1.1 wins below the pace needed to make the tourney. ISU would have to push its winning streak all the way to 12 games to get even odds as a tourney team, barring a big blowout or two to boost their analytical profile.
Iowa State’s Current Analytical Profile
Long story short, the way it stands at this moment, ISU’s adjO and adjD are not good enough to carry a team to the NCAA tourney. There will need to be improvement in order to make a run at a bid. Last year, 6 B12 teams made it into the tournament, and the only team with an offense or defense ranked below 42nd in the country was Oklahoma State’s 155th ranked defense, and they boasted the #1 adjO in the country to offset their woeful defense. ISU certainly doesn’t have that kind of firepower with the current 44th ranked offense and the 107th defense. Both units would be in the bottom 3 units of last year’s B12 class of tourney invitees. The good news is, there’s plenty of quality teams to boost these numbers as ISU will likely end up with a top 5 SOS in the nation when it’s all said and done.
The Silver Lining
There is a bright side to playing in the toughest league in the country. Iowa State will be alive for a tourney invite until they go 4 games under .500 or more in their remaining 19 games. If ISU starts out 5-10 and rips off 4 straight wins to finish the year, they’ll get in. They should be able to compete in most games, even if the schedule overall is an awful grind. And while the B12 is rated as the top conference by far on paper, intra conference play can be a tug of war where most teams stay somewhere near the middle of the pack in conference record, without a lopsided record either way. Coaches have gone against most systems multiple times. Players have played each other a handful of times. Road wins are always extremely difficult to obtain. 8-11 in this environment could be grinded out with continued improvement. Is it currently more likely than not? I would say no. Will this team reach that tipping point eventually? There’s no way to know until it happens.
The one thing I do know for sure is that I’ll continue to enjoy this resurgence with my eyes on the NIT and The Big Dance in the corner of my eye.
*All rankings and figures from Kenpom.com*