MBB: Cyclones take on Texas in first round of Big 12 Tourney

Chris Cuellar —

Don’t blame coach Greg McDermott’s team if they’re confident and play ball with a chip on their shoulder when they take on the Texas Longhorns on Wednesday night in the opening round of the Big 12 Tournament.

The Cyclones just took down the No. 5 team in the nation on the road, and they don’t feel an overabundance of pressure heading into a game that their No. 11 seed dictates they should lose. Texas was No. 1 when the two teams met on Jan. 13, and they have gone 7–8 since that point.

McDermott got an uplifting of support from athletic director Jamie Pollard on Monday. Sitting at 4–12 in conference play, this Cyclone team has had a recent string of days that seems like it has had a winning record all along.

“There’s no pressure on us, we just have to go in there and get it done,” said ISU leading scorer and forward Craig Brackins. “They have to worry about, ‘Oh, we have to win and we have to get past other teams to do that.’ I think when you have that ‘here’s nothing to lose’ mentality, you just go out there and play.”

There isn’t much the same for these two teams since their last meeting. Texas was undefeated, and had just beaten Michigan State and North Carolina with strong bench play. Since that time, and with its sub-.500 record since, Texas has lost defense-minded point guard Dogus Balbay to injury and its lineup has been streamlined, eliminating a few players that were picking up minutes but not letting Texas necessarily get into a flow.

“The biggest thing that’s changed in the last six games is the injury to Balbay,” McDermott said. “People don’t understand when you lose an important part of your team how it impacts everything. They had a swagger here when they were 16–0 and ranked No. 1, and when you lose a few, you’re going to lose part of that swagger.”

Iowa State is missing Lucca Staiger from the first meeting, in which the German had 17 points. Missing Staiger and forward Jamie Vanderbeken meant struggles for the Cyclones, who were counting on the two high-percentage shooters to help carry the load.

Brackins and senior forward Marquis Gilstrap are combining for 43 percent of Iowa State’s points, and almost 47 percent of the team’s rebounds.

“I really believe that the plan that we had in place and the team we had in place at the beginning of the year I really believe we would have accomplished our goals,” McDermott said.

Some things that haven’t changed since January: Longhorn forwards Dexter Pittman’s girth in the paint, and Damion James’ affection for double-doubles. ISU center Justin Hamilton will be in charge of controlling Pittman, who is listed as 6-foot-10-inches and 290 pounds. Pittman’s minutes can be cut with his tendency for foul trouble, but with performances like the 23 points and 15 rebounds he logged against North Carolina, Hamilton will need to keep up his form to hold him to the six points and eight rebounds he was able to muster Jan. 13.

“I feel like we played pretty well against him last time, we just have to all work together,” Hamilton said. “He’s a big guy and we just got to make sure we limit his touches.”

James has only been held in single digit points three times all season, and has been one of the few constants in the Longhorn rotation. A senior with leadership skills and solid numbers to back it up, he’s caught the attention of a junior team leader in cardinal and gold.

“I figure we guard him the same way. Last game [James] hit some shots and he was feeling it, we just need to make him uncomfortable,” Brackins said. “We’re still working hard, that’s how we’ve always been, and we’re just as confident as any other game.”

McDermott is well aware of the all-around presence James brings to the Longhorns — he is able to pound the ball inside and rebound more than his 6-foot-7 inch frame would indicate, but also pop three pointers.

“We need to defend him better,” McDermott said . “I just think the critical piece in the game is to get those guys off the backboards. [James] and Pittman and Gary Johnson are so aggressive going to the offensive glass, and I think that’s where they can really turn the tables on you if you allow that to happen.”

Iowa State hasn’t won in the Big 12 Conference Tournament since 2005, and McDermott is 0–4 against Texas coach Rick Barnes. The Cyclones are confident that concrete facts are broken like McDermott’s 0–21 record against ranked teams before Saturday. In what could plausibly be Brackins and Gilstrap’s last game as wearing the ISU uniform, they’re ready to play until another team forcibly sends them back to Ames.

“We’re feeling good after that big win on Saturday. We had a good practice, and we’ll be ready to roll on Wednesday,” guard Scott Christopherson said.

The No. 6 versus No. 11 seed game in the Big 12 Conference Tournament will take place Wednesday at the Sprint Center, the winner will play Baylor at 8:30 p.m. Thursday.