Cy of relief
The last game called for the second year in a row, Iowa State’s wait for its NCAA tournament future was far less dramatic.
Having already guaranteed itself a place in the season-ending field of 68 with the Big 12 Conference tournament title it wrapped up a day earlier, the Cyclones gathered at head coach Fred Hoiberg’s house upon returning from Kansas City to discover their postseason fate.
But once again, ISU had to wait the full hour of ESPN’s NCAA Selection Show to hear its name called.
Not nearly as pressure-packed a situation for the Cyclones (26-7) this time around.
A year after earning a No. 10 seed with an at-large berth, the automatic qualifiers came in as the No. 3 seed in the East Region and will face No. 14 North Carolina Central (28-5) in Friday’s second-round game in San Antonio.
Hoiberg was happy to have the weight of knowing already off his shoulders.
“I knew we were getting in there this year, I guess that’s the main thing,” he said. “Last year I was sweating. I shut the door to my room and was in there by myself, and to hear our name called when we weren’t sure, when you only had one game left to be called.
“I guess the similiarities is we were the last game called again for the second straight year, but we knew we’d put ourselves in a very good position this season from everything we’ve done: from non-conference schedule to taking care of business when we had to, to having a great conference tournament. We put ourselves in a position to do something well.”
The Cyclones beat Kansas State, Kansas and Baylor in consecutive days to win their first Big 12 tournament title since 2000, and they will match the program record with their third straight NCAA tournament berth.
“It feels great, just to know we get another chance to play,” said DeAndre Kane, ISU’s senior guard and MVP of the Big 12 tournament. “Coming here (to Iowa State), that was my main objective was to go to the NCAA tournament to get a run at that national championship.
“I’m proud of the guys, happy how things have been going so far and looking forward to playing in Texas. We knew we’d hear our name called so (we were) just sitting back and waiting, enjoying our time, enjoying family and just having fun.”
Iowa State and the NCCU Eagles will meet at the AT&T Center, home of the San Antonio Spurs, at 8:50 p.m. Friday night. The game will be televised by TNT.
The winner plays either No. 6 seed North Carolina (23-9) or No. 11 Providence (23-11) on Sunday.
“They’re all great teams, we’re on a great side of the bracket,” said ISU guard Naz Long, “but if you want to be the best, you’ve got to play and beat the best.”
North Carolina Central emerged as the best team in the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference both during the regular season and in the conference tournament. The Eagles ride a 20-game win streak into the NCAA tournament, having not lost since Jan. 11 to Florida A&M.
This marks the Eagles’ first NCAA tourney berth since the program joined Division I athletics in 2009-10.
“It’s not going to be easy in this tournament,” Hoiberg said. “Everybody’s excited and confident at this time of year. It’s just a fun time, I’m happy for our guys, happy for our fans, and hopefully we go out and represent Iowa State University very well.”
The Cyclones have advanced to the NCAA tournament in three of Hoiberg’s four seasons at the helm, going 1-1 in both of their previous trips to the big dance. Iowa State downed defending national champion Connecticut before falling to Kentucky two seasons ago, and last season saw the Cyclones defeat Notre Dame before getting edged by Ohio State.
“I think we’re kind of built the same way (as last year’s team), but I think this year we’ve shown that we can handle adversity, we can handle tough situations, it’s not over when we get down,” said ISU senior forward Melvin Ejim, the Big 12 Player of the Year. “I think we’re doing a great job, we’ve done a great job this year and I think that’s one of the things that’s going to help us win these games because we’ve been in adversity, we’ve played the toughest teams in the country so we’ll be prepared.”
North Carolina Central played only one game against a nationally ranked opponent, falling by 11 to unbeaten Wichita State. The Eagles logged one win over fellow NCAA tournament qualifier North Carolina State in earning the highest seed ever for a MEAC school.
The Eagles are led by 6-foot-3 senior guard Jeremy Ingram, the MEAC Player of the Year and MEAC tournament’s Most Outstanding Player. Ingram averages 20.6 points per game and led NCCU in scoring in 24 of their 33 games.
Junior Parks, a 6-7 junior forward, adds 10.2 points per game off the bench.
Aside from Wichita State and Florida A&M, the Eagles were defeated this season by Cincinnati, IUPUI and Maryland. They went 15-1 in the MEAC and ended a 64-year drought with the school’s first conference tournament title since 1950.
The Eagles hope to be more than just a second-round speed bump for Iowa State, which rallied from deficits in all three wins in the Big 12 tournament between Thursday and Saturday. The two programs have never faced off on the hardwood before.
“Everything we’ve done to this point is the goal to help you play your best basketball at this time of year,” Hoiberg said, “and hopefully we build off what we did in the tournament here last week and go out and play well.”