#16 Iowa State will host a red-hot Oklahoma State team on Saturday in Hilton Coliseum to wrap up the regular season. The Cowboys come into Ames as winners of four in a row, but Iowa State figures to be riding a wave of emotion as it's Senior Day for Cyclone stars, Melvin Ejim and DeAndre Kane.
Iowa State triumphed in the earlier contest between these two Big 12 conference foes in a 98-97 triple-overtime classic in Stillwater that snapped an 18-game losing streak in Gallagher-Iba Arena for the Cyclones. Iowa State is coming off two straight losses on the road, but has won six in a row at home and has only one loss (14-1) at home all year.
Much will be made about the final home game for Ejim and Kane (and rightfully so), but this game represents a chance for Iowa State to build some momentum going into the Big 12 tournament and beyond. Where the Cyclones will end up being seeded come Selection Sunday is still very much in question and another quality win could help cement a three-seed once the NCAA Tournament brackets are announced.
How 'Bout Them Cowboys
Since Marcus Smart returned from his three-game suspension, the Pokes haven't exactly looked like a different team, but I would instead say that they've played like the team that we all expected them to be. Their depth has taken a serious hit with the losses of Michael Cobbins (injury) and Stevie Clark (literally pissed his scholarship away), but the three-man core of Smart, Le'Bryan Nash and Markel Brown is as good as any in the country and capable of propelling this team to a successful finish to what has otherwise been a disappointing season.
The scorer's table won't figure to get much action in this game with Fred Hoiberg sticking to a seven-man rotation for Iowa State and Travis Ford playing as few as six guys for the Cowboys. All five Oklahoma State starters will play 30 minutes plus if the flow of the game allows and playing with foul trouble is of no concern for this team that's grown accustomed to gambling with Big 12 officiating.
Aside from the terrific trio of Smart, Nash and Brown, the always dangerous Phil Forte gives the Cowboys a lethal long-range assassin. Forte hit 6-11 from deep against Kansas State on Monday night and has hit at least three treys in five of his last six games. Forte is shooting 45.4% from beyond the arc on the year and will command constant attention from the Cyclone defense.
As a team, the Cowboys are much better statistically than their 20-10 record may suggest. They are among the top 40 nationally in both adjusted offensive and defensive efficiency according to kenpom.com and really excel when it comes to taking care of the ball and getting to the free throw line. Like Iowa State, Travis Ford's team also thrives on runout opportunities and are coming up with a league-best, 6.88 steals per game in conference play.
On the road, Oklahoma State has struggled, going just 2-6 in the Big 12, but four of those losses came during a dismal, mid-season seven-game losing streak. The Cowboys are currently on the right side of the bubble, but a win in Hilton Coliseum would more than likely give them "lock" status the eyes of the selection committee.
A Word On the Seniors
Saturday may as well be de facto "Melvin Ejim Day" in Ames and while he can never be "The Mayor", Ejim figures to be well on his way to earning a permanent spot within the rafters of Hilton Coliseum. CanAzn penned a fitting tribute to the greatness that is Melvin Ejim on Thursday and at the risk of an ensuing Ejim overload, I also feel compelled to share a few words as well.
Often thought to be a "glue guy" throughout the course of his career, despite his senior success, Ejim has never stopped being that glue that held this team together. Ejim may lead the Big 12 in scoring with 18.4 points per game, but he's still doing the little things on a game-by-game basis that allow Iowa State to be as good as they are. Whether it be defending taller opponents or relentlessly attacking the glass, Ejim is consistently making winning plays on both ends of the floor.
Of all of the superb attributes that make up Ejim's game, by far the greatest is his ability to give his chance a team to win. Ejim can seamlessly transition from hero to an everyman's hustler on each and every position. He's never lost sight of who he is as a basketball player and because of that, he's simply a winner.
Ejim will be the first Cyclone since his head coach to play in three straight NCAA tournaments and is the only player in Cyclone history that will have played on three straight teams that won at least ten conference games.
The cheers won't be quite as loud when Kane's name is called on Saturday afternoon, but make no mistake about who the most important player on this year's team was. Between Ejim, Kane and Georges Niang, Fred Hoiberg has a trio that's the envy of many other coaches around the country. All three possess star-like qualities and are capable of being the best player on the floor at any given time.
That being said, Iowa State simply isn't in the position it's in today if Kane isn't a Cyclone. Think back to last May. Iowa State has just lost Chris Babb, Korie Lucious, Will Clyburn, Tyrus McGee and Anthony Booker to graduation. The Cyclones return the front court duo of Ejim and Niang, but in the back court, there's major questions going into the 2013-2014 season.
Prior to Kane committing to Iowa State, the Cyclones were looking at the possibility of deciding between Bubu Palo, Naz Long and Monte Morris as the starting point guard. Now, Morris has turned into an outstanding player that looks like he'll have a memorable career, but the thought of turning the reigns over to a true freshman wasn't exactly sitting well with most. Palo and Long had played, but neither inspired enough confidence to make fans think that this season would be a smooth ride. Matt Thomas and K.J. Bluford would be joining the fold as guards, but neither had seen a minute of Division 1 action.
The fact is, Iowa State was a bubble team in early May and that might even be generous. With no proven scorers on the perimeter and a lack of experienced ball handlers, Fred Hoiberg was starring the potential of an NIT berth right in the face.
The mercurial transfer from Marshall had a big-time reputation as a stellar playmaker, but also a stubborn headache. Like Hoiberg has repeatedly done, however, he brought in Kane, integrated him into the culture of Cyclone basketball and the rest is history.
By all accounts, Kane has been a model teammate, mentoring the younger Cyclone players and his fiery passion and toughness has proved to be the catalyst behind Iowa State's surprising season. When the season concludes, Kane will find himself on the Big 12 all-conference first team and will run away with the Newcomer of the Year award. He also will finish in the top three in the voting for the conference's player of the year award (if he doesn't win the damn thing altogether) and will more than likely make his way onto some all-American teams.
Because of the success of Jake Anderson, Royce White, Chris Allen, Anthony Booker, Korie Lucious, Chris Babb and Will Clyburn, Fred Hoiberg was able to land a player of Kane's ability and provide a platform for him to excel. Iowa State fans will only know Kane for one year, but what a special year it's been. The relationship has been mutually beneficial as well though, as Kane has positioned himself to get a real chance at making an NBA roster, which is something that might not have been a possibility had he stayed at Marshall.
Iowa State fans will say goodbye to two very different seniors on Saturday afternoon. Each unique and immensely talented, but above all else, outstanding Cyclone basketball players that left a legacy of success that we'll all fondly remember for years to come. We'll miss them both.
And the Winner Is...
If you think I'm picking Oklahoma State, you're a fool.
Iowa State 84 - Oklahoma State 76
Tip: 1:00 PM CST
TV: ESPN with Jon Sciambi and Fran Fraschilla on the call
Radio: Cyclone Radio Network
Cyclones.com Game Notes: Available here
Oklahoma State's SBN Site: Cowboys Ride For Free