It’s that time of year again— March Madness is among us and everybody wants to make noise in the tournament, especially the Iowa State Cyclones.
Under Fred Hoiberg, the Cyclones have gone dancing every year except his first (2010-11), and will be making their fourth straight tourney appearance. During this streak, Iowa State has been able to win at least one game every year, which includes last year’s Sweet Sixteen run that ended in a close heartbreaker to the eventual national champion, UCONN Huskies.
This year, Iowa State was able to repeat as Big 12 Tournament Champions (in dramatic fashion I might add), and appear to be getting hot at the right time (much like last year). But do the Cyclones have the squad and the tournament draw this year to take that extra step into the Final Four conversation?
Last year, senior leaders Melvin Ejim and DeAndre Kane played pivotal roles in taking the team to the Sweet 16. But with those departures, came the arrival of two key components: bench depth and a true defensive anchor in Jameel McKay. These are pieces Iowa State has been missing in recent years, and will help the Cyclones make a deep run.
Let’s break down the Cyclones “road to the Final Four”.
Opening round— against 14-seed UAB:
In a year where analysts are flirting with all kinds of high-seed upsets , UAB actually comes in as one of the weakest high seeds. The Blazers managed to sneak their way into the tourney with an automatic bid after winning the less than average Conference USA (in fact, UAB is the only team from the conference to make it).
Prediction: No more slow starts for the Cyclones. Fresh out of the gritty Big 12 tournament, Iowa State steps on the gas and doesn’t look back. Even if the Blazers are able to contain the trio of Niang, Morris, and McKay, Iowa State still boasts three other double digit scorers and should have no trouble putting up points. ESPN has Iowa State with a 89% chance of winning— I think that speaks for itself.
Round of 32— against 6-seed SMU/11-seed UCLA winner:
Has there ever been a 6-seed favored more than SMU? It seems like all I’ve heard lately is how much UCLA hasn’t deserved to make the tournament. SMU is a dangerous 6 seed. They earned their way with an automatic bid after hoisting the American Athletic Conference Championship (but would have made it anyway).
Prediction: Part of my prediction is that ISU will play SMU, and with that, legendary coach Larry Brown and his Mustangs are a scary team to meet early in the tournament. There’s no doubt SMU could pose a tough matchup for the Cyclones. Guards are always highly-touted pieces come March, and SMU holds a gem in Nic Moore, who leads their balanced scoring attack with 14 points per game. Monte Morris will have his hands full, and with an experienced coach like Brown, Hoiberg will likely have his as well. I think Iowa State’s tougher schedule prepped them enough for a tough game like this, and they’ll pull away late.
Sweet 16— 2-Seed Gonzaga/7-seed Iowa/10-seed Davidson winner:
Wow, how intense would a Cy-Hawk rivalry game be in the Big Dance? While most don’t have this matchup on their bracket, and rather have the Gonzaga Bulldogs in the Sweet 16, I wouldn’t rule out a second round upset.
Prediction: We’ll play the odds here and say ISU meets the ‘Zags. This is a Gonzaga team who pretty much ran the table against the West Coast Conference (excluding a close BYU loss), and one who many have touted as “the best Gonzaga team ever”. While I disagree with the latter statement, this Bulldogs squad is still a “bulldog” of a team. At any position these guys can hurt you: in the paint with Karnowski and Sabonis, on the perimeter with Pangos, and how could you forget Kentucky transfer, Kyle Wiltjer who can light it up from anywhere? If Iowa State meets up with them to advance to the Elite Eight, they will certainly have their hands full. But, don’t overlook the Cyclones. Fred Hoiberg, a master of finding mismatches, could make this interesting game a chess match— Morris vs Pangos, McKay and Hogue vs Karnowski and Sabonis, and Niang vs Wiltjer. Oh my! While I don’t see either team dominating this matchup, I think this is a “dogfight” that the battle-tested Cyclones will be able to pull out because of their ability to match the ‘Zags at each position.
Elite Eight— 1 seed Duke, or any other team at the top of the region:
While I’m not going to guarantee Duke is going to make it this far (see 2014 Mercer), they’re definitely the popular pick.
Prediction: In a match to advance to the Final Four, the Clones may have to face ACC juggernaut, Duke, led by “Mr. 1K”, Coach Mike Krzyzewski. A team needing little introduction to the NCAA tournament, the Blue Devils will look to bounce back after losing a shocker to Mercer last year. Led by freshman studs and likely future NBA 1st-round picks, Jhalil Okafor and Tyus Jones, the Dukies do not lack any bit of talent. If you cannot match their talent, then the question is: How do you beat them? Only three teams have been able to say they’ve done so this year. Of those losses, each game I’ve noticed that 3-point shooting has been a key component. Other than their last loss against Notre Dame, all of Duke’s other losses have come in games where the other team was able to make 8+ threes. The other key to beating Duke: winning the 2nd half. In all of Duke’s losses, they were outscored in the 2nd half, and no team in the country knows how to win games in the 2nd half better than Iowa State. On top of playing a great all-around game, keying in on these small disadvantages Duke has, the Cyclones run n’ gun game will have to be at its best in the midst of a tiring marathon of games. Is this the perfect recipe for Hoi-ball to pull the magical run to the Final Four? We’ll see.