Young Cyclones keep on rolling


Iowa State’s Melvin Ejim goes for the basket during the Cyclones’ game against Montana State on Saturday, Nov. 27 in Hilton Coliseum. The Cyclones beat the Bobcats 81-59.

Chris Cuellar

Emerging from the break, Iowa State has a 6-0 start with a first-time coach and just 10 available players after being picked to finish last in the Big 12. ISU fans are feeling thankful.

The season may have started with low expectations, but after Saturday’s 81-59 win over Montana State, the Cyclones were treading on historic ISU numbers that will keep the expectations high in the Fred Hoiberg era.

“The way that these guys have bought in since day one, it’s an easy group of guys to be around and an easy group of guys to coach, because they do the right things,” said Iowa State’s unbeaten coach Hoiberg. “Everybody, 1 through 15, has bought in. Everybody is out there competing on a daily basis. Practices have been very competitive, and when you have those kind of practices, it carries over into the games.”

Through the first half-dozen games in the long season, Hoiberg has become just the third basketball coach in ISU history to begin his career 6-0, and freshman forward Melvin Ejim has passed his coach’s mark for double-digit scoring games to begin a career. The true freshman is averaging 15.7 points this year, second on a team on which all five starters are averaging double-digits.

“I just thought I’d come in and play my part and do what I had to do to help my team win,” Ejim said. “If this is helping the team win, then I’m going to keep doing it.”

The team’s leading scorer and leader on the floor is senior guard Diante Garrett, who is showing off the potential that fans had felt he hadn’t fully tapped into over the last three seasons. Garrett is averaging a career-high 17.5 points per game, has made 12 threes and has a new career-high 29 points after letting loose against his former coach in the Creighton game Nov. 21.

The Cyclones were expected to pound their first two opponents, Northern Arizona and Alabama State. They did just that. When Drake came to Hilton Coliseum on Nov. 17, it was supposed to be a competitive in-state rivalry game. It turned into a Cyclone showcase, with guard Scott Christopherson shooting a perfect 11-of-11 from the floor, and Iowa State beating the Bulldogs by a record 48 points.

The game against Creighton may well be Iowa State’s game of the year, with a back-and-forth battle that saw the Cyclones come back, almost blow it and eventually win on a buzzer-tying 3-pointer by senior Jamie Vanderbeken.

“It was a great basketball game if you didn’t care who won,” said Iowa State’s former coach and current Creighton boss Greg McDermott after the game. “Obviously I care who won, and the wrong team won for me.”

Kennesaw State and Montana State, the Cyclones’ next two opponents, were talented and experienced squads that could have made things difficult for Hoiberg’s young and thin squad. Instead, Kennesaw State never sniffed a lead, and Montana State hung around for a half and then watched Iowa State run a second-half clinic.

“It was good for us to learn that we need to start blowing teams out in the beginning when we know that we can, instead of giving them confidence,” Ejim said. “I don’t think it was a good thing, but we’re definitely going to learn from it.”

Tougher teams on the schedule are undoubtedly still ahead, but an undefeated start defintely takes some pressure off of a team with just three players who had previously seen game action for the cardinal and gold. The Cyclones are shooting 50 percent from the floor so far this year and holding their opponents to 36 percent. The high-octane offense that was discussed in the off-season? Hoiberg’s club is outscoring opponents by an average of 25.7 points per game and is shooting 44 percent from 3-point range.

Despite the unbridled success, the squad still knows there is plenty to learn and deal with this season. No. 6 Kansas probably won’t let Iowa State score 26 points off turnovers like Drake did, or shoot 66 percent from the floor in a half like Creighton did.

“We’ve got some games coming up against some real solid teams, and as we get into the Big 12, every game is going to be a dogfight,” said Christopherson, who is shooting 64 percent from 3-point range. “It’s definitely a different game when the score is closer.”

Strength of schedule aside, the combined record of Iowa State’s opponents in November was 15-15. Rivals Northern Iowa and Iowa are coming up, and the Pac 10’s California comes to Hilton on Saturday afternoon, but the current record of opponents drops to 11-22 over the next six games. It’s manageable, yet hard to believe the club everyone doubted could compete at the start of the season is racing off with a great start under Hoiberg.

“We’re a pretty good shooting team, so if we struggle we need to rely on our defense a little,” Christopherson said. “We’re going to have those certain games where guys hit shots, and that’s where we’re going to be able to break the game open.”

Wednesday’s game against Northern Iowa is in Cedar Falls, and tips off at 7 p.m.