A weekend to cling to for Cyclones

Cyclones rule Big 12 tourney with poise and multi-pronged attack

Published: March 16 2014 | 10:32 am - Updated: 1 April 2014 | 9:41 am in

Things get moving very fast this afternoon when the NCAA men's basketball tournament pairings are set, and what happened this weekend gets left behind quickly.

But I don't think Iowa State or its fans will soon forget what the Cyclones did at the Big 12 tournament in Kansas City. You knock off Kansas State, Kansas and Baylor in three successive days, you've done something. They're all going to the NCAAs. You do so in an arena that's three hours away from your campus and you have 90 percent of the building stuffed with your screaming fans, that's special. You do with it the spirit and clutch play down the stretch in all three games, you've done something memorable.

Momentum has been known to turn on a dime in the NCAAs, often in arenas far from home with atmospheres that are less raucous than in any game you've played home or away since the last of the December homecourt cupcakes. It's easy to pronounce Iowa State a darkhorse Final Four candidate as Reggie Miller did on CBS Saturday because you can say that about a lot of teams. But ...

This is a team that beat Kansas in Kansas City. This is a team that beat Oklahoma State twice when Marcus Smart was in the lineup. This is a team that beat Big Ten regular-season champion Michigan, a possible No. 1 seed in the NCAAs. This is a team that beat eight opponents when they were nationally ranked. This is a team that had just two truly poor games out of 33, at West Virginia and Baylor.

It's a team that has shown unusual poise, no more so than at the Big 12 tourney. In a tight game against Kansas State, star guard DeAndre Kane fouled out shortly before the final media timeout. The Cyclones coalesced and finished off the win.

Things seemed to be hopping totally off the rails during a stretch of the first-half against Kansas. It was so temporarily out-of-whack that ISU Coach Fred Hoiberg got a technical foul. He'll probably get his next one in 2016. But the Cyclones righted things, and by halftime it was again a coin-flip game. The second half was Iowa State's.

Then Saturday against Baylor, ISU missed its first 13 shots and looked as intimidated by Baylor's height and length as it was in Waco just 11 days earlier. But from that point forward, the Cyclones made a ridiculous 68.8 percent of their shots. They were Hoiberg-ian, you might say.

Speaking of The Mayor, he gave a hearty fist pump to the Iowa State fans after the game as a nod to former Cyclones coach Johnny Orr, who died in December.

"This one is for him," Hoiberg said. "The fist pump was in honor of Coach, and also to thank the fans as well. I just wanted them to know how much we appreciated what they brought."

The NCAA tourney is the big tourney, and so forth. But more teams than not leave that event disappointed. In 2000, the last time ISU won the Big 12 tourney, it got all the way to the Elite Eight of the NCAAs. But what's remembered more than three nice wins to get that far is the loss to Michigan State in the regional final, a game that still doesn't sit well in Cyclone Country because of what the cardinal-clads considered home cooking in Auburn Hills, Mich., by the officials and the Spartans' built-in homecourt advantage there.

But that was a great season, and it was a team with two future NBA players in Marcus Fizer and Jamaal Tinsley. It's not a firm rule by any means, but it generally takes an NBA player or two to get really deep in the NCAAs. Are seniors Kane and Melvin Ejim future NBA players? We'll know in November. But they're close enough. And sophomore Georges Niang is no slouch.

Those three players average between 16.5 and 18.1 points per game. Kane carried the Cyclones in overtime against Oklahoma State on March 8 when Ejim and Niang had fouled out. Everyone else closed ranks against K-State Thursday when Kane fouled out. The team hung on and finished off Kansas Friday night when Niang left late in the contest with a nasty cut over an eye.

Saturday night, it was all hands on deck in the second half against Baylor, which was fitting. Five Cyclones averaged between 10 and 18.7 points in the tournament.

"This one is for the ages," Ejim tweeted early Sunday morning. "Love my team, love my coaches, love the fans. Just amazing, even better than what I dreamt."

Now, instead of getting a solid Big East team in their first NCAA tourney game, the Cyclones will play a No. 14 (or maybe No. 15?) seed that will be woefully overmatched. There will be no first-game loss to a Hampton a la 2001. It will take at least an equally good team to end Iowa State's season. There isn't an abundance of those around.


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