By Rob Gray
AMES — Goodbye, pre-conference season pushovers.
Hello, long runs in both the Big 12 Championship and NCAA Tournament?
That’s the plan for No. 16 Iowa State, which hopes a tougher than usual non-conference schedule coupled with playing in the highest RPI-rated conference in the country leads to wide-ranging success beginning Thursday in Kansas City and beyond.
“It’s not cakewalk teams we’re playing against — it’s really good schools and good programs,” said the Cyclones’ Melvin Ejim, whose team (23-7) opens league tournament at 11:30 a.m. today against Kansas State (20-11) at the Sprint Center. “I think that definitely set me up and set a lot of guys on our team up because we played against great competition, against elite competition and we were able to do well and perform. So I think it was definitely in our favor to play those games.”
Those games in the non-conference season included a comeback overtime win at BYU, a comeback home win over Big Ten champion Michigan and yet another comeback win at Hilton Coliseum over Iowa.
That theme — comebacks — mirrors the larger one that led to ISU’s non-conference RPI checking in at No. 2 nationally.
The Cyclones have won 10 games in which they trailed by seven or more points, including Saturday when they overcame a 16-point second-half deficit to clip surging Oklahoma State 85-81 at home.
“I think we’re pretty battle-tested to hang in there,” said ISU forward Georges Niang, who scored 16 or more points in seven of those 10 wins. “We feel like we can compete with anybody.”
The Wildcats serve as the first potential road block to the Cyclones’ plans.
ISU is currently projected to be a No. 3 seed in the NCAA Tournament, according to ESPN’s Bracketology, but could slip a bit if it goes one-and-done in Kansas City.
“This is my first time even thinking about an NCAA Tournament, so it’s nice to even be knowing that we’re going there,” said ISU guard DeAndrew Kane, who won Big 12 newcomer of the year honors after playing three seasons devoid of March Madness for Marshall. “But we’ve got to take care of business. Kansas State, that’s our main focus.”
The Cyclones — who seek their first title in Kansas City since 2000 — need to gird up, too.
Coach Fred Hoiberg described his team’s 80-73 loss at Manhattan earlier this month as the most physical game of the season.
“They do such a good job of bodying you up,” Hoiberg said. “They try to make you uncomfortable, they make you start your offense further out on the floor and they hit you.”
Five Wildcats scored in double figures in that game, led by Shane Southwell, who notched 13 points, including four 3-pointers.
ISU and Kansas State split the regular season meetings — and Ejim averaged 25 points and 12.5 rebounds in the two contests.
“They’re a tough, hard-nosed team,” said Ejim, who was named the Big 12’s player of the year by coaches and the media. “That’s what you have to expect.”
It’s the kind of game that enhances resolve and possibly the post-season resume.
But only if, as in the non conference season, it leads to a win and opportunities for more Friday and Saturday.“Our fans and this community deserve a championship,” Kane said. “So we’ve got to be more locked in and more focused than we’re ever been all year.”