Cyclones handle adversity heading into the NCAA tournament


Brian Achenbach/Iowa State Daily

Senior forward Melvin Ejim gets interviewed after it was announced that Iowa State is the third seed in the east division of the NCAA tournament. Ejim, along with his teammates, watched the selection show at ISU coach Fred Hoiberg’s house.

Dean Berhow-Goll

After a grueling three-game in as many night stretch to win the Big 12 Championship for the first time since 2000, Iowa State has taken on adversity to the fullest effect — and emerged on top.

ISU coach Fred Hoiberg said Sunday after the selection show, winning a conference tournament can provide momentum, but with Iowa State beating three NCAA tournament teams in the process, it even further prepared them for what lies ahead.

“A perfect example is this last weekend where all three games we were behind by a significant margin,” Hoiberg said. “But we hung in there and stayed together and I think that’s one of the great things about this team — we found a way to stay together when things get tough.

“We’ve played well together down the stretch and obviously you have to do that at this time of year.”

In Kansas State, Iowa State experienced the most physical game of the year for a third time, with the physical man-to-man defense the Wildcats played all season on its way to the best defensive numbers in the Big 12.

Then in the semifinals, even without Joel Embiid, Kansas boasts one of the biggest front courts in the country. And in the finals against Baylor, Iowa State got a taste of how to break down a zone in Baylor’s 1-1-3, which was anchored by two of the longest players in the Big 12 in Cory Jefferson and Isaiah Austin.

So why has Iowa State been able to handle nearly every bit of adversity that has fallen into its lap, as opposed to last year’s team that struggled to dig itself out of holes and play through difficult stretches?

“I think we’re built the same way, but we’ve shown this year instead, we can handle adversity, we can handle tough situations,” said senior Melvin Ejim. “It’s not over when we get down. We’ve done a great job this year and I think that’s one of the things this year that’s going to help us win these games because we’ve been through adversity, we’ve played the toughest teams in the country.”

Against Kansas, Iowa State survived a 16-0 run late in the first half from the Jayhawks that could have served as a knockout punch. Instead the team whittled the run down to a two-point lead at halftime. In the second half, Iowa State came out swinging, taking a lead it would never relinquish.

In the Big 12 Championship title game, the Cyclones shot the ball ice cold, going 1-of-17 to open the game. The first lead of the game came nearly 35 minutes into the game, but once the Cyclones took hold of it, they never gave it up again on the way to the Big 12 title.

“I think last year we had trouble handling adversity,” said ISU forward Georges Niang. “This year’s team, we do a good job of handling it and coming back with our own punch and making the other team go through some of it. I think it’s just leaders like Melvin and DeAndre.

“When you have such great competitors like them and they refuse to lose, it just rubs off on all of us.’

Now after playing through the adversity of the Big 12 Championship, Iowa State travels to San Antonio for the second round of the NCAA tournament, playing No. 14 seed North Carolina Central.

For the first time since 2000, the Cyclones are heading in with more confidence than ever.

“I think we’ve got a lot of momentum,” Ejim said. “When you win your tournament and play as well as we did and fight adversity as well as we did, you build confidence. It’s definitely going to be a little bit different now, because this is the big stage.

“This is what everyone wants to play for.”