Underdog Cyclones prepare to take on Big 12

Jeremy Gustafson

The regular season is over and done with, leaving Iowa State at 9-7 in the Big 12 Conference and 21-7 overall. The two-time defending tournament champ is seeded sixth and could have to play seeds one, two and three to three-peat.

But first things first – Nebraska.

The Cornhuskers are the Cyclones’ opponent when the Big 12 Conference Tournament starts today and if history is an indicator, that’s good for Iowa State.

“We seem to have played well against them in the past,” ISU head coach Bill Fennelly said. “Hopefully that trend will continue.”

“Well” may be an understatement. Iowa State averaged 78.3 points per game during the regular season this year. In the last seven meetings with Nebraska, all ISU wins, the Cyclones have gone off for 86 points a game. This year Iowa State won handily 88-54 in Ames and pulled one out in Lincoln, 82-71.

“We know we can beat them because we’ve done it,” ISU center Angie Welle said. “But we can’t fully rely on that.”

When the postseason rolls around, anything can happen and ISU guard Lindsey Wilson knows it.

“Nebraska’s a team we know pretty well, but also they know us,” she said. “It’s always difficult playing a team for the third time. This is kind of their last chance. They could be a dangerous team in the tournament just because they have nothing to lose.”

The Cornhuskers (4-12, 14-15) will be trying to extend their season. They would need to win the tournament to make it to the NCAAs.

The Cyclones are trying to hang on to the home-court advantage it could hold going into the Big Dance. Ranked No. 10 as of Sunday, Iowa State must stay in the top 16 to host the NCAA Tournament’s first two rounds.

“We have a lot to play for – a lot,” Wilson said. “I still think we have a lot to prove.”

And motivation won’t be hard to find either. No team has ever won the Big 12 tournament three times in a row, or three times for that matter.

Colorado won the first back in 1997. Texas Tech won the next two (1998-99) and it’s been all Iowa State ever since.

But it will be a bit more difficult this season.

No team lower than a three seed has ever won the title. Kansas State (five seed) and Texas (six seed) have made it to the championship game, but both lost.

“It’d be a difficult task there’s no question about that,” Fennelly said. “I think whoever wins it, it’s hard, whether you play three games or four games, somebody’s gonna have to play some really good basketball to win that tournament.”

Seven of the top 15 teams in the nation play in the Big 12 with Oklahoma, Baylor, Colorado, Kansas State, Texas, Texas Tech and Iowa State.

“That’s a pretty good conference tournament, knowing that if you make the quarterfinals you’re gonna play a team that’s rated in the top 15 in the country, let alone the semis or the finals.”

Pretty good conference tournament, how about pretty good Sweet Sixteen?

“It would be,” Fennelly said. “That’s why I think our league is going to do well in the tournament.”

While a meeting with regular-season champion Oklahoma would have to wait until the finals, if Iowa State gets by Nebraska, they will have a shot at two teams that have already beaten the Cyclones.

Iowa State would play third-seeded Colorado Wednesday night if they get by the Cornhuskers. The Cyclones and Buffaloes split two games this season with Colorado winning 86-73 in Boulder, Colo. and Iowa State winning 85-75 in Ames. A possible matchup with Baylor could follow.

Wilson and the Cyclones are eager to get back at the Lady Bears, who spoiled senior night by winning 95-91 in Ames last Wednesday.

“As soon as Wednesday night was over, we were ready to play them again,” Wilson said. “But we have to get to that point and so do they.”

If you ask Fennelly, Baylor will make it there. He thinks they might be playing better than anybody in the Big 12 right now.

“They’re hot now, they’re playing with great confidence, they’re a senior dominated team and they have stars. One star [Sheila Lambert] is a guard the other star [Danielle Crockrom] is a post player,” he said. “You gotta figure Oklahoma is right there because they beat Baylor twice, but I think if you were laying odds, Baylor’s odds would be pretty damn close to Oklahoma’s.”

That means the Cyclones would have to win a series of upsets to three-peat as conference champs.

“We’ll take it however we can get it,” Welle said. “If we have to win the Big 12 tournament as an upset, so be it.”