The 2003-04 Iowa State Cyclones returned some veteran talent in seniors Jake Sullivan, who was a sharp-shooting guard from the outside, speedy point guard Tim Barnes, as well as Jackson Vroman and Damien Staple on the inside. This experience, combined with the youthful backcourt of Will Blalock and Curtis Stinson, helped mold Iowa State into a different animal. A lot of work during the offseason was put in to adjust for a drastic change in the style of play. Instead of the half-court game Eustachy was preaching, Morgan and his staff wanted to play pressure defense and push the ball offensively to utilize the athleticism of his team.
To read the first part of the Wayne Morgan feature, click here.
“The team bought into the new style fairly quickly,” Morgan said. “I think it helped that I’d been there the year before and they knew me. I also knew that the fast paced style of offense was the style Will and Curtis wanted to play. I remember [Jared] Homan saying after I was hired that he would have to do a ton of running over the summer because he knew he’d be doing a ton of running during the season.
“Jackson was one of the hardest working guys I’d ever seen in terms of how he played and with his conditioning. Jake was a great kid who tried to do anything anybody ever asked of him and he always did it as hard as he could. And if I could get Jake, Vroman, and Holman to buy in being the leaders of the team, I knew everyone else would fall in line.
“The trapping defense we played bothered a lot of teams. In fact, I got the sense that a number of teams just gave up and completely surrendered. The kids understood how the pressure created turnovers, and those turnovers lead to fastbreak points. That style of defense we played certainly helped us with a lot of games. “
“Kids want to get up and down the floor, press, and get easy buckets,” Damon Archibald said. “I think people saw our record at home. We just ran people into the ground. I feel like our teams at Iowa State were as well conditioned as anyone in the country and we perfected it as the season went on. “
“I don’t want to say it was overwhelming, but it was a huge learning curve.” – Blalock on Barnes’ ineligibility.
Just before the start of the 2003-04 fall semester, the team suffered a set back as returning starting point guard Tim Barnes (who started all but one game the prior year and was the team’s third leading scorer) was declared academically ineligible.
“Tim was in summer school and had to pass some courses, and it came to the last session and he didn’t pass the class,” Morgan said. “That would have been perfect because we would have had him run the point and have Will learn under him for a year. As it happened, Tim wasn’t able to stay with the team. [Will had] to be our starter from the beginning.”
“That was a shock as initially I thought that I was going to come in and learn behind Tim for a year,” said Blalock. “When he didn’t make it back that year, I don’t want to say it was overwhelming, but it was a huge learning curve. I wasn’t used to running that offense and talking on the court. It was good because Tim stayed for a while and ran practice with us so I could learn in the beginning, but ideally I wish I could have had more time to adjust and learn the first year. The playing time was great, and I was able to learn from my mistakes quickly which helped long term.”
Iowa State vs. Iowa
Despite the setback, the team started the season 10-3 (2-1 in the Big 12) before a January 21st showdown against heated innerstate rival Iowa.
“Being from the Bronx, I didn’t know how much passion there was for the state of Iowa and that game,” Stinson said. “I can remember walking to class leading into that game and kids coming up to me telling me to beat the Hawks.”
“The atmosphere was so hectic and I wasn’t used to playing in front of that.” – Stinson on Hilton Coliseum against Iowa
The Hawkeyes (9-6) had lost the prior two games before heading to Ames, but that didn’t stop them from taking a lead late into the game.
“The atmosphere was so hectic and I wasn’t used to playing in front of that,” Stinson said. “I can remember running around and not knowing what was going on.”
It wasn’t until seldom used walk-on sophomore John Neal, who had been averaging 1.4 points per contest, came off the bench with five minutes remaining.
Neal entered the game with the Cyclones down five points with under five minutes remaining, who had been averaging 1.4 points per game. Almost immediately, Neal hit a 3-pointer from the corner. Minutes later he hit another triple to give the Cyclones a six-point lead in the midst of a 17-2 run down the stretch to secure the victory.
In his post game interview with the media, Coach Morgan said, “John Neal will never have to buy a beer in the state of Iowa again.”
The 2003-04 season was full of exciting memories. Just 10 days later the Cyclones defeated the 15th-ranked Kansas Jayhawks at home, 68-61, behind Stinson scoring 16 of his 19 points in the second half and grabbing 11 rebounds. The highlights included a floating jumper with 32 seconds remaining to secure the victory. Afterwards, junior forward Jared Homan flung the ball toward the ceiling in celebration.
Valentine’s Day Miracle
Photo from Iowa State Athletics. Used with permission.
However, it was a Valentine’s Day battle against 11th-ranked Texas that everybody was talking about. The Cyclones had loss three in a row to the Longhorns by an average margin of 13 points. It was the only team that the seniors had never beaten throughout their career.
“That atmosphere was crazy! Leading up to that game Iowa State hadn’t had much success against Texas,” Curtis Stinson said. “I can remember how Jake [Sullivan] was talking about wanting to beat Texas all the way from the beginning of the season right up until the day of the game.”
“That win against Texas was a great win and one I will never forget,” Morgan said. “Jake made a shot very late in the game to give us the lead where he had to lean back almost to a 45 degree angle, and when it went in, the fans just went crazy.”
Despite coming back from a 14 point deficit, the Longhorns held a 77-76 advantage with 1:47 remaining when Stinson slipped through the lane and found Staple underneath for a two hand slam to give the Cyclones a one-point lead.
“Texas had a chance to hold the ball for the last shot,” Stinson said. “[Texas forward Brian] Boddicker got the ball and I had to foul him. He was going to the rim and about to get a layup with only a few seconds left. I felt horrible for Jake but I had to foul him to make him earn it on the line rather than win in a last second lay-up.”
Boddicker, who was a 81-percent free throw shooter leading into the game, stepped to the line down one with just over five seconds remaining.
“It was crazy during those last few seconds when he was at the line shooting those foul shots,” Blalock said. “It was so loud I couldn’t hear the person next to me talk. It was one of those moments you dream of being a part of. [Hilton] Coliseum was so loud it was shaking. It’s crazy because even though it was ten years ago, it feels like it was just a couple hours ago. I remember that feeling so vividly.
“At the time he was at the line, I wasn’t even in the game; I was on the bench joining the 15,000 other fans jumping up and down. I can remember watching him step to the line to shoot the first free throw and the floor was shaking! He was in a pressure situation anyway, but when you try and shoot free throws and the floor is moving – it was almost impossible. That was by far the loudest environment I’d ever been a part of even to this day.”
Boddicker missed both free throws. The ball batted around between players from both teams and time expired before Texas could get another shot off and the Cyclones won 78-77.
“I give a lot of credit to the previous staff because we had some good players that first year,” Archibald said. “Our players did a great job of buying into what we were teaching them. Our group of coaches and players were a very close knit group and the closest I’d ever been a part of. Players would come over to my house unannounced and check in with me like I was their big brother.”
Iowa State couldn’t capitalize on the momentum, and finished the season losing five of the next eight games. Included during that stretch was a 90-89 overtime loss to 21st-ranked Kansas in Lawrence. But the loss isn’t the only thing the Cyclones still remember a decade later.
With Kansas holding a 10 point lead late in the first half, Homan was fouled and went to the line to shoot two. He misfired on the first shot, to which Kansas rebounded the ball, outlet it to freshman J.R. Giddens who shot (and made) a 3-pointer. In a bizarre officiating decision, the officials allowed the points to stand, and walked everyone back to the foul line so that Homan could take his second shot.
“I was there when the ref was trying to explain it to Coach Morgan,” Blalock said. “He told him that the official who was underneath the hoop put one finger in the air as to show it as a one and one situation even though we and everyone in the arena knew it was a two-shot foul. Well, when Holman missed the first free throw, [Wayne] Simien grabbed the rebound and passed it down the court to Giddens who hit the three.
“When you are a powerhouse school in a powerhouse conference, you get breaks. And there are certainly some politics being played.” – Stinson on teams like Kansas getting the calls.
“Then they stopped the game and we were arguing, trying to explain it was a two-shot foul. They admitted it was their mistake and allowed Jared to shoot the other free throw, but kept the three on the scoreboard. It was loud in there, so I was trying to understand. But to this day I still can’t figure out how that can happen.”
“Right after that play happened, I thought to myself that we are now in the big leagues of college basketball,” Stinson said. “When you are a powerhouse school in a powerhouse conference, you get breaks. And there are certainly some politics being played. We beat them earlier in the year and they knew they needed help to beat us. That single play fueled a fire in us that made the rivalry with Kansas right up there with playing Iowa each year. It was that heated and emotional. To this day, every time Iowa State plays Kansas, I get excited.”
“It was one of the most freakish things I’d ever seen happen,” Morgan said. “They counted it! We called the referees over and explain that it was a two-shot foul and that the shot shouldn’t have counted. I told them that we need to go back and shoot our other foul shot. They said, sure let’s do that. And then I said, OK, and take away that 3-point bucket just made.
“They turned and told me they couldn’t do that. They gave a very long reasoning as to why they could allow the shot to remain claiming it was in the rules. Frustrated, we are allowed to go back and shoot our second free throw and the game resumed like it never happened.
“That officiating crew [Tom O’Neill, Danny Hooker, Paul Janssen] got suspended by the league and was not allowed to coach any future league games the rest of the season. They might have even been suspended by the NCAA for the rest of the year. In my mind, we actually beat Kansas twice that year. When we played down there we lost by one in overtime. But late in regulation their guard, [Keith] Landford, made a shot at the buzzer to send it into overtime. They needed a three, but the replay showed that it was only a two and we should have won the game.”
Photo from Iowa State Athletics. Used with permission.
On senior night against Colorado, a packed crowed watched as Stinson suffered a severe sprain to his hand, which altered his shot, caused him to miss practice and game time. Something that didn’t set well with the freshman.
“During our game against Colorado,” Stinson said. “Will, I and Richard Roby from Colorado collided going after the loose ball. Will went to cut Roby off from the ball, but it ended up that we were going the same direction and my finger caught the side of his face and snapped back.”
“I felt really bad at the time,” Blalock said. “Our only loss at home that year was against Oklahoma State and Tony Allen was one of their best defenders and best defenders in the league. Before the tip he was talking to Curtis about how he was going to see how strong that hand really was and he went after it quite a bit.”
The team finished the regular season with a 17-1 home record, but had a 17-12 record overall. Work needed to be done in the Big 12 tournament.
“That 17-1 record we had at home that year was certainly due to the fans as much as the players,” Morgan said. “They would just yell so loud that the other team couldn’t perform. And if our team was down they yelled so loud we wanted to win for them. They willed us to more than a few victories.”
More from Iowa State Cyclones
- Get Cyclones News, in the New FanSided Android App
- Clones Confidential Madness: Win $500 or an Apple TV from RetailMeNot and LockerDome
- FanSided Madness: Win $500 or an Apple TV from RetailMeNot and LockerDome
- Get Instant Cyclones News, in the New Sports Illustrated App
- Make sure a Cyclones fan is crowned Fan of the Year
After the Cyclones lost in the second round of the Big 12 tournament to the seventh-ranked Oklahoma State Cowboys, the team traveled back home awaiting there fate.
“When we returned, Coach Morgan called me into his office,” Stinson said. “When I’d got there he told me that I was named the Big 12 Freshmen of the Year. We celebrated and he told me that he was proud of me, which was great because at that point he was like a father figure. And when your father tells you that they are proud of you, it means a lot.
“I cannot say enough about my teammates that season. We had some very good seniors, and for them to let this freshman kid come in and steal some of their thunder, it was a special feeling.”
Selection Sunday came and went, and the Cyclones weren’t sure if the season was over. A call finally came from the NIT inviting the Cyclones to compete in the annual postseason tournament. They hosted the first game against Georgia.
“We had some great wins during that NIT run that season,” Morgan said. “We had a tough first round game against Georgia. Curtis had a broken hand and their players were going after his hand real hard trying to slap at it. I didn’t start Curtis the second half because he didn’t score at all in the first hand and I didn’t think he could play effectively with them attacking his hand. He didn’t like that, and so I put him in and he went something like 9-for-9 in the second half and we won.
“Afterwards we had to travel to Florida State and defeated a tough team led by Leonard Hamilton on their campus. We then returned home to beat Tom Crean at Marquette who had [Travis] Diener, who was shooting lights out that season. “
Behind Sullivan’s 22 points and Stinson’s 20, the Cyclones secured a 77-69 victory over Marquette to earn their first trip to the NIT Final Four in New York — a homecoming for Coach Morgan and his two young freshmen.
“Leading up to that game [against Marquette,] I was nervous because I knew if we won, we would get to go back to New York. [To] play in [Madison Square] Garden and in front of my family,” Stinson said. “After we won the game, Coach Morgan handed me the apple and told me that we were going home!”
“It was big time!” Blalock said. “I had a lot of family and good friends who came over from Boston. It was like a dream because the Garden is the biggest stage, it’s like the Mecca. It was a primetime game and sold out. We had the world watching. I had a lot of nerves leading up to that game.”
Stinson didn’t disappoint his hometown fans and family scoring 32 points (27 in the second half). However, he gathered his fifth foul late in the game and Vroman left the game late with cramp in his leg. Rutgers took advantage and secured the 84-81 victory in overtime.
“I had all my family and friends there,” Stinson said. “But Rutgers, being the home team, had a lot of fans there. I still have that game on film. I gave it my all, but we fell a little short.”
“Making it to the NIT semifinals in New York was great, and we were proud to be there,” Morgan said. “I just wish we would have played a little harder and won so that we could have had the opportunity to face Michigan in the finals because I thought we matched up well with them.”
Following his inaugural season, Stinson finished the year with 534 points, which was and is a school record for points by a freshman.