NCAA BK

Surprises prove CBK's unpredictability

NOTHING IS CERTAIN
No. 11 Kansas State's week consisted of two losses.
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Reid Forgrave

Reid Forgrave has worked for the Des Moines Register, the Cincinnati Enquirer and the Seattle Times. His work has been recognized by Associated Press Sports Editors, the Livingston Awards for Young Journalists and the Society for Features Journalism. Follow him on Twitter.

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AMES, Iowa

If you look at the human polls, Saturday’s game between 11th-ranked Kansas State and unranked Iowa State seemed like a decent-sized upset.

Kansas State, who beat eighth-ranked Florida before Christmas and took third-ranked Kansas to the wire earlier this week, should have marched into Hilton Coliseum and handed Iowa State its first home loss of the year.

Right?

Well, if we’ve learned anything from the first three months of college basketball, it’s that the human polls mean very, very little in one of the most wide-open college hoops seasons in recent memory. At the end of a week in which the No. 1 team in the country, Duke, suffered a thrashing of historic proportions, Saturday saw third-ranked Syracuse drop an overtime stunner to unranked Villanova. It saw unranked Georgetown give fifth-ranked Louisville its stunning third straight loss. And it saw Kansas State get stunned at unranked Iowa State.

Perhaps we need to make a few belated New Year’s resolutions in college hoops:

Stricken the words “stunned” or “stunning” from our college hoops vocabulary. At some point this season’s upsets should be considered routine. Dickie V’s “unbelievable, baby!” shouts bely the point that anything is believable in college hoops this year.

Realize the word “unranked” is merely a way that we like to build up the run-of-the-mill, almost expected upsets — exactly what Iowa State’s victory over Kansas State was — into a shocking, unbelievable, heart-stopping stunner.

Pay more attention to the in-depth numbers. Because the numbers rarely lie.

The number in question here: 46th. That’s what the college hoops advanced statistics website KenPom.com has Kansas State ranked, which seems a far cry from the Wildcats’ No. 11 ranking in the human polls. As for unranked Iowa State? It is 43rd in the nation, a notch above Kansas State, which seemed to indicate Saturday’s game would be a back-and-forth, til-the-last-minute struggle between two relatively equal — if utterly different in style — teams.

That’s exactly what we got. Iowa State’s fast-paced offense, which currently has it ranked 11th in the nation in points per game, helped the Cyclones overcome their atrocious 10-for-22 free throw shooting. Iowa State dictated the pace to the slow, more physical Kansas State team, which ranks 155th in the nation in points per game but crashes the boards hard and slugs it out in the paint.

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Iowa State guard Chris Babb played all 40 minutes and managed to hold K-State’s Rodney McGruder, who’d scored 20 or more points in three of his first five Big 12 games, to only 13 points. The lanky, versatile Cyclone guard Will Clyburn simply dominated, scoring 24 points on 8-of-16 shooting, grabbing a game-high 10 rebounds, and confounding Kansas State coach Bruce Weber.

“He plays point, he plays three, he plays four — he gets you in all different minds, and they spread you,” Weber said. “When they hit threes, they spread your defense, and that allows him to work. We couldn’t do a good job of containing him.”

Saturday’s matchup could be seen as a big morale game for each team.

Kansas State was coming off a heart-breaking four-point home loss against the in-state rival, Kansas, one of the best teams in the nation. Iowa State was coming off the egg they laid in Lubbock, losing by five to a middling-at-best Texas Tech squad.

“Especially after the Texas Tech game, we were all down,” said Iowa State power forward Georges Niang. “We heard stuff from everybody about how we shouldn’t have lost to them… We (had) three straight wins, we got a little cocky, thinking we were hot stuff. Then we got brought right back down after we lost to Texas Tech and realized we gotta have that same fight every game rather than taking games off.”

After the game, I asked Weber if the high ranking got in his players’ heads and contributed to their two straight losses. He shrugged. They were ranked 11th because they went on a winning streak. They would have been the same team if they’d dropped one of those early January games, or if they pulled if off earlier this week against Kansas.

His answer seemed to be that reporters and fans put a lot of stock into the rankings, but coaches really don’t give a hoot: “I don’t know, maybe we didn’t deal with (the high rankings), but now we had a reality smack and we gotta get back at it.”

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What we learned from this game? Iowa State and Kansas State are both really solid teams who will likely slug it out for second place in the Big 12. (Nobody’s eclipsing KU.) Iowa State’s hard to beat at home, and its Texas Tech loss was likely an aberration, and Kansas State’s heading back to a more realistic place after being ranked 11th.

“They’re a great team, they’re an experienced team, they’re very well-coached,” Iowa State coach Fred Hoiberg said of Kansas State. “I love their offense. That stuff they run is extremely difficult to guard. They run hand-offs, constant motion and movement. It’s a little bit similar to how we play. We try to go out and play unpredictable basketball.”

Let me pull out one word from that: “unpredictable.” We can try and make sense out of chaos all we went, try to put rankings beside each team so we can pretend to know which team is better and which team is best. But the wonderful part of this college basketball season so far is that nothing — nothing — is predictable.

Kentucky and North Carolina are unranked while Villanova’s out beating two top-five teams in five days? Of course. Don’t spend your time ranking or predicting anything this year. Just lay back and enjoy the beauty that is college basketball’s utter unpredictability.

Follow Reid Forgrave on Twitter or email him at ReidForgrave@gmail.com

Tagged: Iowa, Texas Tech, Texas, Kansas State, Kansas, Iowa State

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