AMES — When underappreciated Iowa State forward Melvin Ejim ascended to the top of the list of Big 12 leading scorers last weekend, he predicted Oklahoma State’s Marcus Smart would soon drop 30 points, making his reign brief.
Instead, Smart and the No. 10 Cowboys — who Ejim’s 18th-ranked Cyclones face in today’s 8 p.m. ESPN-televised Big 12 game at Stillwater — lost to Oklahoma, then were shocked by Baylor.
That’s the brawny Big 12 this season, where only No. 7 Kansas seemed immune to some form of 40-minutes-or-longer struggle — until Saturday’s 81-69 loss at Texas.
“You look at the teams that we’re playing, who’s losing to who, when they’re losing — it’s tough,” said Ejim, who averages 18.1 points for the Cyclones (16-4, 4-4). “There’s tough teams in this every night.”
Enter Oklahoma State.
The Cowboys (16-5, 4-4) were handled, 88-76, by the rival Sooners last Monday on the road, then lost 76-70 to the Bears Saturday at home.
Not much — but just enough, as ISU can attest, to lead to a string of losses in a league that ranks among the best, if not the best, in the country.
“These are tough times,” Oklahoma State Coach Travis Ford told reporters Saturday. “Everybody goes through them. … If we continue to play like individuals, we will continue to struggle.”
History’s on the Cowboys’ side this “Big Monday."
The Cyclones have lost 18 in a row at Gallagher-Iba Arena — a stretch of futility that traces back to 1988, or three years before ISU Coach Fred Hoiberg was capping a storied Ames High School career with a 1991 state title.
“Thanks for bringing that up, geez,” the Cyclones’ Georges Niang deadpanned after he scored a career-high 27 points in Saturday’s 81-75 win over Oklahoma.
Then Ejim chimed in.
“I’m pretty sure most of them have been pretty close,” he said.
That’s been the case lately.
Last season, Smart drove for a layup with 3.1 seconds left to help seal a 78-76 Oklahoma State win.
In 2012, Le’Bryan Nash’s fadeaway jumper with 4.7 seconds remaining won it, 69-67.
And when Ejim was a freshman, the game went to overtime, with the Cowboys surging to a 96-87 triumph.
“We’ve had great opportunities the last three years,” Hoiberg said.
“They weren’t all close because I got my butt handed to me, I think, all four times I played there,” Hoiberg said. “It’s a tough arena. It’s a great crowd and they do a good job of feeding off of that.”
The Cyclones will continue to rely on Niang, DeAndre Kane and, yes, Ejim — the “glue guy” who puts up numbers that prove he’s more than just a connecter.
He’s a headliner, whatever the headlines read.
“I’ve never played with someone that just brings it every night,” Niang said of Ejim, who’s scored at least 14 points in all but one game this season. “He doesn’t ask you to tap him on the behind and tell him, ‘Good job.’ I’m blessed to play beside someone like him.”
That’s the Big 12’s leading scorer — though few outside of Ames may know it.“Story of my life, right?” Ejim said. “Honestly, I don’t care. It is what it is. I just want to win.”