By Rob Gray
AMES — A long-awaited top-10 showdown in Hilton Coliseum.
Two on each team.
Today’s 6:30 p.m. Big 12 matchup between No. 7 (USA Today coaches poll) Iowa State and No. 9 Baylor to be broadcast on ESPN2 ripples with storylines, and one of them revolves around North of the border talent.
Front and center: ISU forward Melvin Ejim, who along with sixth man Naz Long makes up one-half of the Canadian connection.
“I think it’s big time,” said Ejim, who helped the Cyclones (13-0) sweep the Bears (12-1) last season. “I think any time you have Canadians that are notable Canadians playing against each other, it’s always a good story for Canada.”
Baylor’s Canadians form vital backcourt elements for a team long on length in the interior.
Ejim’s played in the World University Games with the Bears’ sixth man, Brady Heslip, who’s shooting 48 percent from 3-point range.
Long counts new Baylor point guard Kenny Chery as a friend — and all Chery’s done is average 11.5 points while building a better than 2-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio.
“We played in the All-Canada Classic a couple years back,” said Long, the Cyclones’ top 3-point shooter at 47 percent. “That’s my dude.”
Tonight, that’s his foe.
It will be the first time ISU has been engaged in a top-10 matchup since Kansas came to town for a Feb. 17, 2001 game the Cyclones won 79-71 at Hilton.
That’s plenty of hype flying under two flags.
But as always, ISU Coach Fred Hoiberg evenly appraised the meeting.
“I think that number in the polls is great for the fans, to see our guys have played hard to this point,” Hoiberg said. “We’re going to continue to try to get better. I ask our guys every day if they’re satisfied and they all say no.”
There’s no room for puffed out chests against Baylor, which already owns a win over Kentucky.
The Bears feature one of the nation’s best shot-blocking tandems in 7-1 Isaiah Austin and 6-9 Cory Jefferson.
They’ve combined for 59 blocks, but rarely roam outside the paint.
“There’s a bunch of different things you can do — definitely get them away from the basket,” Ejim said when asked how to counter their abilities. “I think that’s something that we do regularly, with Georges (Niang) and me spacing the floor. We always tend to pull the bigs out.”
Ejim’s friend, Heslip, also plays a key inside-outside role.
“You always have to be ready when he’s inside for him to set a screen,” Hoiberg said. “You just have to have great awareness. If your bigs get hung up on a screen then you have to provide a lot of help and then (Heslip’s) coming off uncontested. That’s going to be an open shot, and when he's open you can pretty much count it.”
Same goes for Long, Ejim and Chery — three other Canadians who will make a “big time” impact under one Central Iowa roof.“It will be fun to play against those guys,” said Ejim, who leads ISU at 17.7 points per game. “To see them and joke around and maybe talk about some Canadian stuff.”