ISU men continue to embrace underdog role


ISU forward Royce White talks with the media leading up to Iowa State’s third-round matchup with No. 1-seeded Kentucky on Friday, March 16, at the KFC Yum! Center in Louisville, Ky. White, a transfer from the University of Minnesota, had planned to meet with Kentucky coach John Calipari about joining the UK program, but decided against the trip to Lexington, Ky., and ultimately signed on with the Cyclones. The Cyclones and Wildcats will play Saturday night.

Jeremiah Davis

LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Sure, it’s been a talking point throughout the Big 12 season, but the ISU men’s basketball team is now — more than ever — an underdog.

Against teams like Kansas, Missouri, Kansas State and Baylor, seeds of doubt from outside sources have been planted in the ISU locker room. Rather than sprout uncertainty and timid play from the Cyclones, that doubt has produced several noteworthy performances — including one Thursday night against Connecticut in the second round of the NCAA Tournament.

“We’ve pretty much been the underdog the whole season,” said guard Tyrus McGee. “We’ve beat some pretty good teams. We have pressure on us, but not a lot of pressure, so we’ll go out there and take care of business.”

The “business” McGee spoke of is No. 1 overall seed Kentucky, which awaits Iowa State in the third round on Saturday at approximately 6:45 p.m. CDT.

The Wildcats have been atop the national rankings for the majority of the season, and are generally the pick across the country as the favorites to win the national championship. On the strength of the consensus No. 1 overall NBA draft pick, forward Anthony Davis, as well as forward Terrence Jones, Kentucky poses a myriad of problems for any team it faces.

At a news conference on Friday, players talked about what it’s going to take to stop the Wildcats.

“We’ve got to do a great job of trying to keep their guards in front of us and try to make them shoot contested jump shots over us, because if you do give up guard penetration to the middle, they have incredible athleticism and length,” said guard Scott Christopherson, who had 15 points in the 77-64 win against UConn. “They’ve got guys that can go get it. So it’s going to be really important that we shrink the floor and keep the ball in front of us.”

Forward Royce White said the best way to combat the impact of a player such as Davis was simply to “just stay solid,” and he believes coach Fred Hoiberg will provide a game plan that suits the Cyclones defensively.

Despite White’s confidence, as well as his 6-foot 8-inch, 270-pound frame, prognosticators don’t give Iowa State much of a chance to match up with Kentucky in the post positions. 

White echoed his teammate McGee in saying that the team is used to that type of thought about the Cyclones. Even after upsets and program-defining victories, White said people still doubted the ISU men. 

“We’ve been underdogs all season, even at our own place, even after we beat good teams,” White said. “People thought that we weren’t going to be able to handle our success, and people voted us as the underdog. And we’ve won most of those games we were underdogs.”

ISU coaches and players hear and see all the predictions and selections people make when picking games at this point in the season, on a national stage such as the NCAA Tournament.

From being picked to finish eighth in the Big 12 before the season, to not being favored as the No. 3 seed in the Big 12 tournament, to not being favored against UConn as the No. 8 seed in the NCAA Tournament, the Cyclones have used the lack of faith from the viewing audience — outside of ISU fans — as fuel.

That fuel, Hoiberg said, will hopefully propel the ISU squad into the Sweet 16.

“They went out and played with a chip on their shoulder every single time we took the floor, and this continued to happen all the way through the Big 12 tournament game,” Hoiberg said. “I think I read something where we were only the pick in 32 percent of the brackets on the ESPN [Tournament] Challenge. We have played that underdog role, and we’ve played it well.

“Our guys have gone out there and taken it personally. And hopefully we’ll do that again tomorrow night.”