As I boldly predicted back in October, the Iowa State Cyclones made the NCAA Tournament. Their first obstacle? Beat the defending National Champions. Head coach Fred Hoiberg has guided the Cyclones from a last-place finish in his first year to third-place in his second. Granted he had plenty of new talent coming in but to transform a program in such short time is remarkable enough for him to win co-Big 12 Coach of the Year honors.
After their storybook season a year ago, the Connecticut Huskies have had an up-and-down season to say the least. A team that lost Mr. Everything in Kemba Walker would still have four starters coming back. They've had moments of brilliance like their wins over Florida State and Harvard and moments of frustration in defeats to downtrodden Rutgers and Providence. Couple that with Jim Calhoun recovering from back surgery, so continuity has been an issue in Storrs.Iowa State's back in the Big Dance for the first time since the days of Curtis Stinson and Will Blalock. But the national experts don't seem to give the Cyclones a chance because they're all hoping to see a star-studded Kentucky-UConn battle in the 3rd round.
Truthfully, it'd be fun to watch but that's no reason to easily dismiss ISU. Royce White may be the best multi-dimensional big man in this tournament, as he'll score inside and out (52% from the field) and when you double team White, he'll find his teammates (leads team with five assists/game). Senior Scott Christopherson (45% from 3) and junior Tyrus McGee (41% from 3) are the main threats behind the line on a team that collectively shoots 38%. But the most important player for this time of year is senior Chris Allen, who has been to two Final Fours while at Michigan State. Having the knowledge of what to expect in March is more invaluable than you or I may think.
Take that Final Four experience from Allen and multiply that times three. Sophs Jeremy Lamb and Shabazz Napier, along with junior Alex Oriakhi, saw significant minutes last season and are now the unquestioned leaders. Throw in Andre Drummond, a top prospect in his recruiting class, plus a steady point guard in Ryan Boatright. This looked like another great season for them, right?
Well Boatright sat out a total of nine games because of an NCAA investigation of him and his mom receiving an improper benefit. Later in the year, Napier called out his teammates in front of the media, questioning his teammates' heart on the basketball court. Their next game against Villanova, I watched him back up his words by nailing a 30-foot three-pointer to beat the Wildcats in overtime. The Huskies closed out the season with a nice showing at last week's Big East Tournament. They won two games and gave top-seeded Syracuse a run for their money before faltering.
So in essence, this is yet another 8-9 game that could go either way.
The first ever meeting of Cyclones and Huskies will be tonight at approximately 8:20 central time on TBS. That time could change depending on when the Western Kentucky-Kentucky game ends.
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