No sweat for the Cyclones

AMES – For the fourth consecutive season, the Cyclones are dancing amongst the field of 68.

And for the second year in a row, they didn’t need to wait around for Selection Sunday to guarantee their spot.

Locking up their bid for the NCAA Tournament with a second straight Big 12 Conference Tournament Title Saturday, the Iowa State men’s basketball team is approaching this year’s tourney with the same confidence they’ve shown in their five-game win streak.

Matching its No. 3 seed from a year ago when the Cyclones advanced to the Sweet 16, Iowa State (25-8) takes on No. 14 UAB (19-15) Thursday in the second round of the South Region in Louisville.

ISU gathered at coach Fred Hoiberg’s house to hear their name called and enter March Madness with the momentum of five straight double-digit comeback victories.

“This year we were just more prepared to see who it was,” junior guard Naz Long said. “My freshman year we didn’t know exactly where we were going to be. We knew that we were going to be in the tournament this year and have a pretty solid seed. We’re locked in, yesterday was a great time but I feel like we’re past that already, we’re ready to make a deep run in the tournament.

Iowa State’s unprecedented fourth straight berth amongst the NCAA tourney field starts against a Blazers squad manned by one of Hoiberg’s college rivals – Kansas alum Jerod Haase. If those old showdowns are any indication, Hoiberg’s ninth-ranked unit will face a savvy squad riding its own postseason momentum. UAB won the program’s first Conference USA men’s basketball tourney title by beating No. 5 seed Western Kentucky, No. 1 seed Louisiana Tech and No. 6 seed Middle Tennessee.

“Obviously any team that has made it this far is going to present a challenge,” Hoiberg said. “I played against Jerod Haase in college and had some good battles with him. He was really difficult to guard when he played at Kansas, so I know that this team is very well coached and well prepared. Working under Roy Williams for as long as he did obviously taught him very well.

“He’s an unbelievable competitor, that’s one thing I know about Jerod Haase. We’ll get to work tonight and be ready to start getting after it with our guys tomorrow.”

ISU, which rallied past Texas, Oklahoma and Kansas in a three-day span in Kansas City, returns to the KFC Yum! Center where they advanced to the third round of the 2012 NCAA tournament beating Connecticut before falling to eventual national champion Kentucky.

“It’s a great setting, great arena, very easy having the hotel right there just a couple blocks from the arena,” Hoiberg said. “From a convenience standpoint just being close and being an unbelievable basketball town, it’s great to be back. Having played there a few years ago it’s nice to go back somewhere you’re at least a bit familiar with.”

Thursday’s game tips off at 11:40 a.m. and will be televised by truTV.

Haase, who played alongside Jacque Vaughn, Paul Pierce, Scott Pollard and Raef LaFrentz at Kansas, helped his team recover from a 4-9 start to earn the school’s 15th tourney bid. Though going winless in five meetings against Power 5 conference schools, the Blazers won’t be intimidated by Iowa State’s resume after facing Wisconsin, Florida, UCLA, LSU and North Carolina earlier this season.

And they’re led by a coach that’s been a part of 18 NCAA Tournaments including 13 as an assistant coach at Kansas and North Carolina, along with four as a player with California and Kansas.

“We have a clear goal of making some noise once we get to the tournament,” Haase said. “It’s awesome and I’ve been lucky to be a part of NCAA Tournament teams as a player and a coach, but to be a head coach and to see that name come up was a special feeling.

“Just the opportunity. Once you’re in the tournament now, I know it’s fun to look at numbers on the side of your name and things like that, but it does not matter, every team has a chance to play. Madness is in the title. We have an opportunity, we’re going to go in confident and excited and who knows what happens.”

The Blazers enter the field of 68 with the third-youngest team as their roster features 10 underclassmen and is the first tourney appearance for all 13 players on the squad.

Be it brazen youth or its recent tourney run, UAB enters its first tourney appearance in four years confident it can play with the ‘Clones. And like Iowa State, the Blazers have a wealth of capable scorers with eight players averaging six points or more led by redshirt junior guard Robert Brown’s 13.1.

“We’ve really grown as a team,” said Brown, a Virginia Tech transfer. “To get to the tournament with this group of guys is a great accomplish I think. Iowa State’s a great team, they just won their conference (tournament) but we’re playing well right now so I think it’s a great time to be playing them. I think we’re playing well right now, and you never know whose going to step up and have the big game. Throughout this tournament we just ran through, everyone stepped upeveryone had a big game. Just being consistent and being well balanced helps us.”

Iowa State, one of seven Big 12 teams in the field, knows a thing or two about balance as well. The Cyclones wield five double-digit scorers and one of the country’s top point guards in Monte Morris. The ISU sophomore has posted the nation’s top assist-to-turnover ratio of 4.91 and will likely cross paths with former prep rival and fellow Flint, Mich. native Denzell Watts, a sophomore reserve guard for the Blazers.

“We’re real close friends both from the same place, so it’s a great feeling,” Watts said. “We played a lot in high school and it was always a big show, just getting ready for a rematch.”

Junior power forward Georges Niang guides the ‘Clones with a team-high 15.5 points per game, while Morris (11.8) and rim protector Jameel McKay (11.0), both the Big 12 Newcomer and Defensive Player of the Year. Bryce DeJean-Jones is contributing 10.9 points off the bench while Long (10.3) and Dustin Hogue (9.6) are close behind.

“That’s the good thing about the tournament cause we’ve got seven to eight guys that can go out there and score the ball,” Morris said, “so I feel like it’s tough and that’s what makes us a tough out this time of year because we’ve got eight guys doing something.”

The Cyclones could potentially meet rival Iowa in the Sweet 16 though the Hawkeyes would likely have to pull a major upset to get there. No. 7 seed Iowa (21-11) opens against No. 10 Davidson (24-7) and would face the winner of No. 2 Gonzaga (32-2) vs. No. 15 North Dakota State (23-9) in the third round.

With a win in its opener, ISU will meet either No. 6 SMU (27-6) or No. 11 UCLA (20-13), led by former Hawkeye coach Steve Alford, in the third round.

After a pair of third-round exits in ISU’s first two tourney berths under Hoiberg, the Cyclones broke through to the Sweet 16 last March where they were eliminated by eventual national champion Connecticut. Iowa State was without Niang in the 81-76 loss as the Cyclone forward broke his foot in the team’s third-round win over North Carolina. The all-Big 12 first-team selection is ready for redemption and another deep run, but he isn’t looking ahead.

“Every game that I play I’m going in to treat it as unfinished business,” Niang said. “I haven’t won a national championship and that’s what I’m here for but it’s one game at a time.”