For the third straight year, Iowa State is back in the NCAA tournament, although this time with much greater fanfare. Coming off a Big 12 Tournament championship, the Cyclones were rewarded with the #3 seed in the East Region and will match up with 14th-seeded North Carolina Central.
Since the brackets were announced on Selection Sunday, Iowa State has become somewhat of a trendy pick nationally, with many pundits projecting the Cyclones to go as far as the Final Four, creating a nervous optimism within the fan base.
There's no doubt that this team is good enough to get out of the first weekend unscathed and make that type of run, but standing in the way is a dangerous North Carolina Central team that's riding a 20-game winning streak and already holds a win over North Carolina State earlier in the year.
Before we get to Firday night's match up, allow me if you will, to tie the final bow on Iowa State's Big 12 Tournament Championship.
Having been in Kansas City for all three games, KnowDan filled in for me and handled the previews and recaps and I'm very appreciative of his efforts. There are a few key items that I wanted to touch on, however, before we look ahead.
- By now, we all know how outstanding the fan support was. I've been going to these tournaments for several years now and I've never seen anything like it. It reminded me of a bowl-game level turnout and a good family friend of mine, who's been going to Big 8/Big 12 tournaments since before a good majority of this community was born, remarked that this was the absolute best turnout he'd ever seen. On Thursday, Cyclone fans outnumbered the local Kansas State fans by a 3-to-1 margin. On Friday, it was a toss up between Iowa State and Kansas as to which fan base brought stronger numbers (stop and think about that for a second). On the day of the championship, Kansas City may as well have been just one big, beautiful Cyclone orgy.
- This brings me to my next point. I couldn't help but skim the blogs of our southern-most friends in the conference upon my return home and the sentiment, especially among Baylor fans, was that the location of the tournament simply creates too much of an advantage for the northern schools and just isn't fair. You're damn right it isn't fair, but guess what, this is about making money and perception. Could the Big 12 hold the tournament in the geographic center of the conference (roughly Oklahoma City) each year in order to appease all those around the league? Sure, but let's not kid ourselves here; the schools south of the state of Kansas don't deserve that type of compromise. Year after year, I watch games in Stillwater, Norman, Fort Worth, Austin, Waco and Lubbock and without fail, I can always bank on seeing empty seats. Don't like that the Big 12 tournament is in Kansas City? Why don't you try showing up to your own games first and then we'll talk.
- Aside from stellar play from the Big 3 of Melvin Ejim, DeAndre Kane and Georges Niang, perhaps the biggest reason Iowa State won the tournament came from the rest of the roster. Dustin Hogue was brilliant both on the glass and on the defensive end of the floor. Monte Morris was his usually steady self. I can't confirm this rumor, but there were reports that Naz Long had to buy a wheel barrow to carry around his gigantic set. Matt Thomas played smart, effective minutes. And how about Daniel Edozie? The Edozer gave Iowa State great minutes throughout the tournament and likely earned himself a spot in the rotation for the duration of the season.
Playing as a favorite is a unique position for Iowa State, even in a year like this one where the Cyclones have enjoyed so much success. In each of the past two tournaments, the Cyclones were the underdog against a pair of (former) Big East foes in Connecticut in 2012 and Notre Dame last year. Iowa State managed to win convincingly in both contests, but on Friday night, the Cyclones will likely come into their match up with North Carolina Central as a double-digit favorite.
Iowa State took the floor as a favorite against Baylor on Saturday night in the Big 12 championship game and came out flat, shooting an abysmal 0-13 from the field to start the game. Of course, the Cyclones were damn near unstoppable in the second half and won that game, but we've seen this team get off to slow starts all year and besides, weird shit happens in the NCAA tournament. We know Iowa State can erase any deficit as they've done so repeatedly time and time again, but this is certainly no time to go through one of those dry spells.
Over the last ten years, #3 seeds have
screwed your bracket lost four times in the opening round (36-4 overall during that time) and unlike the #2 seeds, there has never been a year where multiple #3 seeds lost, meaning that six of those years, all four #3 seeds successfully moved on to the next round (isn't basic math fun!). The #3 seeds that lost during that time were New Mexico in 2013 (Harvard), Georgetown in 2010 (Ohio), Iowa in 2006 (Northwestern State) and Kansas in 2005 (Bucknell).
As of Tuesday night, 95.2% of all people who've filled out a bracket with ESPN, have Iowa State beating the Eagles. That type of overwhelming confidence should make the Cardinal and Gold faithful rest a little easier, but not all are as bullish on the Cyclones. Ken Pomeroy happens to be one of those eyeing a potential upset on Friday night. Pomeroy's prediction model gives Iowa State only a 73% chance to win and predicts a closer final score of 76-70. This, however, shouldn't come as much of a surprise as Pomeroy's rating model hasn't exactly been in love with Iowa State all season and likely inflates North Carolina Central's relative strength based on their gaudy defensive statistics against their shit sandwich of a schedule.
As you've probably heard, the Eagles are riding a 20-game winning streak, but haven't played a team in the top 200 of the RPI since a loss at Maryland on December 31st. In fact, NC Central has the 343rd ranked strength of schedule nationally and out of all 32 conferences, the MEAC checks in with the 31st-ranked conference RPI.
Knowing that the Eagles have feasted on what has been just about the easiest schedule in the country makes it a little difficult to take their team stats seriously. The numbers would say that this is an elite defensive team, but numbers without context are about as useful a notebook full of tips from a Scott Drew coaching clinic.
That being said, Iowa State can't simply show up and expect to cruise to an easy, 20-point win. Confidence won't be lacking in the Eagle locker room and with a dynamic scorer like Jeremy Ingram firing off shots, NC Central will have a guy that can match any Cyclone point-for-point. Ingram has taken about about one-third of all Eagle shots and he gets to the line a ton. Fred Hoiberg will likely rotate everyone from DeAndre Kane to Monte Morris to Naz Long and even Dustin Hogue in an effort to shut Ingram down.
Truth be told, I haven't watched one second of North Carolina Central basketball all season and honestly, why would I? I've been looking at the numbers since Sunday evening, though, and while I think this team can be pesky, I don't know that they have the mettle and resolve to beat Iowa State over the course of 40 minutes.
Upset Potential: You might drop a few F-bombs early, but it will be #ELLERMANTIME before all is said and done. Give me the Cyclones here.
Iowa State 83 - North Carolina Central 69
A Run To Remember?
It's been two and out each of the last two years for Iowa State, but this year, Fred Hoiberg's team has its sights set on squeezing an extra weekend or two out of the season. The road won't be easy, but is navigable all things considered. Should Iowa State triumph over North Carolina Central, they'll play the winner of the North Carolina-Providence game. Conventional wisdom says that the Cyclones will have a date with old foe, Roy Williams and the Tar Heels on Sunday, but don't sleep on Providence. The Friars won the Big East conference tournament and could very easily win their opening game. Either way, both North Carolina and Providence have been maddeningly inconsistent throughout the year, but have played much better of late, creating a tricky spot in the round of 32.
If the Cyclones can survive the opening weekend, the most likely match up would come against the #2 seed, Villanova. The Wildcats have spent most of the year in the top ten and without a loss to Seton Hall in the Big East tournament, likely would have grabbed a #1 seed. If there's one team that can throw a wrench into 'Nova's opening weekend, however, it's Connecticut. The Huskies are a #7 seed and have a loaded back court that will keep any opposing coach up late at night.
Beyond the Sweet 16, the much anticipated battle, should it come to fruition, however, is the potential for an Iowa State-Michigan State Elite Eight rematch that would pit the two programs against each other for the first time since the controversial "BLARGE" game in the 2000 NCAA tournament. The Spartans rolled through the Big Ten tournament and are a hot pick to win the whole damn thing. Of course, Tom Izzo's team will have a tough road to reach the Elite Eight that will likely include match ups against 5th-seeded Cincinnati and the #1 seed in the region, Virginia. The Cavaliers aren't getting much respect relative to their seeding, but Tony Bennett's team is most certainly good enough to roll through the East region.
For Iowa State, the key to a deep run lies in that second game. Iowa State just didn't have the horses to run with Kentucky two years ago and against Ohio State last year, an ill-time Chris Babb injury and a suspect charging call against Will Clyburn late in the game proved to be too much to overcome.
If Iowa State can win that second game, I really like their chances to win at least a third, primarily because it A) will give the Cyclones some mega momentum, but also B) you have to like Iowa State's chances when Fred Hoiberg has almost a week to prepare. So yeah, bring on that Elite Eight game against the Spartans that everyone wants to see.
Game Info For Friday Night
Tip: 8:50 PM CST, AT&T Center - San Antonio, Texas
TV: TNT with Marv Albert, Steve Kerr and Craig Sager on the call
Radio: The game will be be brought to you via the Cyclone Radio Network with John Walters and Eric Heft (if he hasn't fallen drunk into the Riverwalk)
Cyclones.com Game Notes: Available here
North Carolina Central SBN Site: Haha, just kidding.