DES MOINES, Iowa — The next step for coach Fred Hoiberg and his surging Cyclones would be a long run in the NCAA tournament.
Third-seeded Iowa State has the pieces to make a push for the Final Four — and the Cyclones are playing their best basketball at exactly the right time.
Iowa State (26-7) beat Kansas State, Kansas and Baylor over three days to win the Big 12 tournament for the first time since 2000. By far the most talented team Hoiberg has had in four seasons at Iowa State opens tournament play in the East Region on Friday night against North Carolina Central (28-5).
We “played three excellent teams, and all three played different styles. Everything we’ve done to this point is (about) playing your best basketball at this time of year,” Hoiberg said. “Hopefully we’ll build off of what we did in the tournament last week.”
The Cyclones have become a trendy pick in the brackets partly because they’re such a difficult team to plan against.
Point guard DeAndre Kane, the MVP of the Big 12 tournament, is averaging 17 points and a Big 12-leading 5.8 assists per game. But he’s also one of the best rebounding guards in the country at 6.7 a game, and his ability to post up defenders gives the Cyclones an extra weapon. Georges Niang’s ability to knock down 3s and drive to the rim for baskets off on spin moves is unusual for a 6-foot-7 college forward.
While Melvin Ejim might be more of a traditional small forward, he was named the Big 12’s Player of the Year this season and has 32 career double-doubles. The Cyclones have a standout rebounder and energy guy to pair with Ejim in forward Dustin Hogue, who helps them compensate for their lack of a true center.
They also start a freshman guard on pace to break the NCAA record for assist-to-turnover ratio in Monte Morris and have a backup guard, Naz Long, who twice hit long 3s at the buzzer to help Iowa State avoid losses to Oklahoma State.
The Cyclones also played one of the most difficult and varied schedules in the country, so they’re unlikely to be surprised by a defense. In addition to a round-robin schedule in the Big 12, which saw seven of its 10 teams reach the NCAA tournament, Iowa State beat Michigan, BYU and Iowa in non-conference play.
The Cyclones aren’t afraid to play from behind, either. They’ve erased double-digit deficits to win eight times and are 7-4 when trailing at halftime.
“We’ve had our backs against the wall against some teams. You think you don’t have a chance. But then you find a way to pull it out. And again, that all leads to confidence, which is so important ... and we’re a confident team right now,” Hoiberg said
Iowa State isn’t perfect, of course.
The Cyclones have been known to suffer through stretches of cold shooting and inattentive defense, and they’ve been susceptible at times to opposing big men in the post. But for the most part, Iowa State looks like a team primed for a strong performance in the NCAA tournament.
“Our chemistry has been very good, and we’ve handled adversity well so far with this group. I’m sure that at some point in every game we play the rest of the season, we’ll be challenged,” Hoiberg said. “So far this team has shown that it handles it very well.”