AMES — Iowa State’s stirring run through the nonconference season is over.
Big 12 play looms for the unbeaten and 12th-ranked Cyclones and suddenly the experts’ foregone conclusion that either Kansas or Oklahoma State — no one else in the discussion — would win the league seems, well, a bit too narrow a line to draw on the parquet.
“Definitely,” ISU senior forward Melvin Ejim said when asked if he felt his team had a chance to win the league for the first time in 13 seasons. “I think we feel like we have a great team right now. We’re rolling. We’re playing as good as anyone in the country, I feel. The Big 12 is up for grabs.”
Proving that begins at 12:45 p.m. today when the Cyclones (12-0) take on gritty Texas Tech (8-5) at Lubbock.
The Red Raiders derailed a three-game ISU winning streak there last season, allowing just 51 points.
“Maybe our worst performance of the year on offense,” Cyclones Coach Fred Hoiberg said. “They had something to do with that.”
Tech is large, skilled and mean — all traits enhanced now that Tubby Smith is leading the team.
“I’ve always been a big fan of his,” Hoiberg said. “Watched him a lot when he was at Minnesota. You have to be ready for a physical battle.”
Front and center in that are forwards Jaye Crockett and Jordan Tolbert, who lead the Red Raiders in scoring and rebounding (26.2 points and 13 boards combined per game).
They help form a 6-7, 7-0, 6-7 front line that’s built a 4.5 rebounds per game edge over opponents.
ISU is plus-6.3 per game on the glass, but was out-rebounded 46-36 in Tuesday’s 99-63 drubbing of Northern Illinois.
“If you’re playing against bigger guys, which we will do pretty much every night, you have to make first contact,” Hoiberg said. “And when you don’t, it’s like a jump ball and the bigger player will usually win that.”
Call Tuesday’s performance on the boards an aberration for ISU, which has been out-rebounded only three times this season.
Three Cyclones who are 6-6 or shorter — Dustin Hogue, Ejim, and DeAndre Kane — average significantly more rebounds then Tech’s top board men.
“We’ll definitely bring it (in Lubbock),” said Ejim, the Big 12’s leading rebounder last season. “I know (Hogue) will for sure; I’m going to try to catch up.”
Keeping up will be the challenge over the next 18 games leading to the conference tournament.
And as for the Big 12’s relative strength, consider this: One conference has four teams ranked in the top 12 of CBSSports.com’s RPI standings. Those four teams are Kansas (1), ISU (6), Baylor (11), and Oklahoma State (12).
“This is when the season starts,” Cyclones forward Georges Niang said. “There’s no real cupcake games in this league, so we’re going to have to come mentally prepared and ready to go from the get-go.”
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