We fans are a fickle bunch. Over the course of this past season, we've vacillated between boisterous, boastful and bemoaning when it comes to talking about the prowess (or lack thereof) of this Iowa State team. Unwavering and steadfast in our belief in this year's Cyclone edition we have been not.
Sure enough, if you travel back in time, or even dig some game recaps out of the long-forgotten and discarded days gone by of WRNL content, you're likely to find a narrative that's constantly in flux where reason and unshakable faith are nowhere to be found.
Yet here were are, pulling for our boys clad in the Cardinal and Gold, who just so happen to be in the exact same position they were in one year ago - Big 12 Tournament champions and a 3-seed in the NCAA Tournament. Considering how much and how often we all questioned the toughness and leadership of this year's team in comparison to the supposed unapproachable standard of the '13-'14 unit, I think this is as good of time as any to take a step back, laugh at ourselves and wonder what the hell we were thinking.
Even the most staunch pessimists among us, who would argue that a few losses here and there likely cost Iowa State a 2-seed, have to admit that this late-season surge the Cyclones have put together has been scintillating and with how this team is rounding into shape, a Final Four (and beyond) isn't just a pipe dream, but a plausible reality.
That's big picture, but for now, it's all about avoiding being an opening weekend casualty and that's where UAB comes into play.
Looking At the 14th-seeded Blazers
I watch a lot of basketball. Way, way, way too much basketball. Yet for all of the (mostly) meaningless games I catch, I don't recall seeing one damn second of Alabama-Birmingham action this year. Hell, until Sunday evening, I had no clue that Jerod Haase, one of the scourges of my childhood, was their coach. Luckily, The Mayor won't be crafting Thursday's game plan around my insignificant statistical findings.
On the surface, it's hard not to take UAB for granted. We're talking about a team that finished tied for fourth in a severely watered-down Conference USA and came into their league tournament at 16-15, realistically looking at just trying to end the season above .500, let alone make the NCAA Tournament.
Statistically, UAB is even more underwhelming. They barely crack the top 130 in kenpom.com's adjusted offensive and defensive efficiency ratings. If you had to pick out something they do well on the offensive end of the floor, I guess you'd say it would be attack the offensive glass (83rd best offensive rebounding rate) and shoot free throws (31st nationally). They really struggle to take care of the ball, however, averaging a little more than one turnover out of every five possessions. Putting the ball in the basket has equally been a struggle as the Blazers have the 230th-best eFG% in the country.
Defensively, the numbers look a little better and UAB doesn't appear to give up many easy looks inside as they have the 33rd-best block rate nationally. Take from this what you will, but all those block attempts may also make the Blazers susceptible to weak side rebounding as opponents corral their misses 33% of the time (264th in the country). 3-point defense is another area where UAB has excelled, limiting the opposition to only 31.8% shooting from outside.
UAB would appear to be a balanced team as there are seven guys that average between 6.2-8.0 points per game. 6'5" junior, Robert Brown, is the lone Blazer to average double figures, scoring 13.1 points per contest. Brown also grabs 3.7 rebounds a night and dishes out 3.1 assists. Brown is the very definition of a volume shooter as he's hoisted 169 3s on the year, yet hit a paltry 31.4%.
Nick Norton, a freshman point guard, runs the show and leads the team in assists at 3.9 a game. He's also an adept outside shooter, hitting 39.3% of his looks from deep on 144 attempts. Amazingly, he's only attempted 25 shots from inside the arc on the year. For reference, Daniel Edozie has attempted 28 such shots in only 16 games.
Interestingly, UAB will play four freshman in their primarily 9-man rotation and C.J. Washington is the lone senior in the mix.
So Who Wins?
Of all of Iowa State's opening round opponents in the last four tournaments, UAB easily rates as the worst on paper. If history is any indicator of what to expect on Thursday, this game could get ugly for the Blazers. Under Hoiberg, the Cyclones have won all of their opening round games by double digits with an average margin of victory of 16.3 points.
On the season, Iowa State is 7-1 against teams ranked 100th or worse in kenpom.com's ratings (and I think we know what the only loss was) and have won those 7 games by an average of 27 points.
The Cyclones are in the midst of a 5-game run that has seen them trail by double digits in each contest. Of course, the record over that span is a perfect 5-0. Obviously, this isn't exactly a desirable blue print going forward and Thursday offers a chance for Iowa State to take control early and put this game away.
Over-confidence is a dangerous thing, especially in March and we've seen this Cyclone team get tripped up from time to time over the course of the year, but I just can't see any way that Iowa State loses this game. Moreover, I don't see a result that doesn't involve the Cyclones winning comfortably.
No second-half comeback needed in this one.
Iowa State 83 - UAB 67
Tip: 11:40 AM CST, Thursday, March 19th
Radio: Cyclone Radio Network