It’s hard to believe that it’s almost been five years since Iowa State made its return to the NCAA Tournament in the 2011-2012 season. That was my freshman year at ISU and I was incredibly lucky to have the season the Cyclones made their return to the Tournament — their first since 2005 — coincide with my first year on campus.
Who could forget that team? It was the squad primarily comprised of players who’d made up the “Best Scout Team In America” the year prior. AKA: Fred Hoiberg’s first batch of transfers. Chief among them was Royce White, arguably the most talented player to suit up in a Cyclone uniform this decade.
Iowa State’s NCAA Tournament that year only lasted two games, but it was an undisputed success in the eyes of Cyclone Nation. Running into a Kentucky team that went on to win the whole damn thing and was quite possibly one of the best college teams ever assembled turned out to be too much to handle. However, we were treated to a few good moments, including a dunk from White where he sprinted the length of the floor past a young Anthony Davis, followed by White shouting out that he was the “best player on the court.”
Since that season the Cyclones have qualified for the NCAA Tournament every year, running their streak to six appearances in a row counting the 2017 campaign that’s about to get underway.
The current streak has been the most consistent period of basketball success in school history. It may not contain a Final Four appearance like the 1944 Cyclones, nor an Elite Eight run like the 2000 team led by Larry Eustachy, but that could easily change if this year’s team continues to play like they have for the last month.
And I want so badly for that to happen.
There are many reasons why this year’s NCAA Tournament means more to me than any other in my lifetime. Some of you fans who were older than seven and eight years old around the turn of the millennium may feel differently, but try to hear me out.
In the first weekend of this year’s tourney, Iowa State gets to play in Milwaukee — less than a six-hour drive from Ames. Cyclone fans from Iowa and from the Chicago area should form a sizable contingent and be able to provide a small dose of Hilton Magic in person for the team’s first two games. Then, if ISU is lucky enough to advance to the Sweet Sixteen, it’s back to “Hilton South” in Kansas City for a likely matchup against Kansas.
If Iowa State were to play KU in the Sprint Center for the right to go to the Elite Eight, it would EASILY be the best atmosphere of any game in the Sweet Sixteen. Cyclones and Jayhawks would flood the Power and Light District, again, to support their teams.
And if ISU were to win that game?
An Elite Eight game featuring the Sprint Center filled to the brim with Cardinal and Gold.
Take a moment to think about that. For years now, Cyclone faithful have lamented having to play Michigan State in the Spartans’ backyard for the Elite Eight in 2000. If Iowa State gets there this year, the role for ISU will be completely reversed from the MSU scenario. A virtual home game for a shot at the school’s first Final Four in over 70 years... It’s almost too perfect to think about.
Now, I know what you’re thinking at this point. “Gotta get there first” and “Just focus on one game at a time,” etc. But the situation detailed above must be factored in when considering why this year’s NCAA Tournament means more than prior years. That, along with one other key element near and dear to fans’ hearts...
This year’s team is special because it features three seniors who’ve been with the program for a full four seasons or more: Monte Morris, Matt Thomas, and Naz Mitrou-Long. In the five years of Tournament appearances before this one, only Melvin Ejim and Georges Niang fit this criteria for players who contributed significant minutes. Sure, Mitrou-Long would have graduated with Niang had it not been for a couple bum hips, but everything happens for a reason as they say.
Perhaps that reason is because this year, he’s destined to help this team do something special in March. I’d like to believe so.
Hindsight is 20/20, and making the Sweet Sixteen in 2014 and 2016 was great, but did any of the past five tournaments have as much potential heading into the first game as this one? The answer to that is no. And it might be a long time before ISU gets as favorable of a road to the Final Four as this year.
The stars have aligned and presented the opportunity for Iowa State to make this NCAA Tournament a memorable one. With a team full of experienced and adored players along with locations that are travel-friendly for a fanbase known for being “Loyal Forever True,” the 2017 season can end with a bang. Now, it’s up to the Cyclones to take advantage.
That’s why this year means more to me. That’s why I hope this is the year we’ll be talking about for years to come.
Bring it, Wolf Pack.