Four out of five? Cyclones prepare for Big 12 Tournament

Matt Thomas kisses the Big 12 Championship trophy following the Cyclones’ 80-74 win over West Virginia in the tournament championship at the Sprint Center in Kansas City, Missouri.

Aaron Marner

A history of success

It all started with the 2013-14 team.

DeAndre Kane, Melvin Ejim and Georges Niang were one of the nation’s most formidable trios. Junior college transfer Dustin Hogue could grab a rebound over anyone, and a pair of freshmen — Monte Morris and Matt Thomas — were contributing as well. Barely able to earn playing time as a freshman, sophomore Naz Long was making his mark as a sharpshooter.

For three days in Kansas City, the Cyclones caught fire. Iowa State, the No. 4 seed, knocked off Kansas State in round one, top-seeded Kansas in the semifinals and the Baylor Bears in Saturday’s finale.

The next year, Niang, Thomas, Morris, Long and Hogue were joined by Bryce Dejean-Jones and Jameel McKay. Again, the Cyclones brought magic from Ames down to ‘Hilton South’ for three days. In all three games of the 2015 Big 12 Tournament, Iowa State trailed by double-digits.

In the championship game against Kansas, Iowa State was down by as many as 17 points in the second half. That didn’t matter. Iowa State won, 70-66 to clinch its second straight Big 12 Tournament title.

After losing in the first round in 2016, the 2017 team was back with a vengeance. The Cyclones, this time led by Morris, Mitrou-Long, Thomas and a fellow senior named Deonte Burton, won three games in three days.

That marked three Big 12 Tournament championships in four years, and Iowa State’s fourth Big 12 Tournament title overall. Only Kansas has more Big 12 Tournament trophies than Iowa State.

Of course, those players are gone now. Only Donovan Jackson, Solomon Young and Nick Weiler-Babb remain among those who stepped on the court in last year’s championship game, and only Jackson is still healthy for this year’s tournament. Sophomore Jakolby Long played just two total minutes in last year’s tournament.

The present

Now, a young team that has battled injuries and adversity all season will head to Kansas City and try to recreate some of that magic.

The first challenge, on Wednesday night, will be something unusual for the Cyclones. Iowa State hasn’t played in the Wednesday night session since, well, ever. The last time Iowa State played on a Wednesday at the Big 12 Tournament was 2011, when the Big 12 still had 12 teams and the tournament’s format was different.

With Weiler-Babb and Young out with injuries, a lot of pressure will be on the young guys to step up and on Jackson, the senior leader, to handle the pressure.

“What I hope [Jackson] brings to Kansas City is the experience of winning on a big stage, to help these guys from that standpoint.” said coach Steve Prohm.

Since going to the new format in 2012, Iowa State has never had to play in the infamous Wednesday games.

Wednesday night around 8:30 p.m., Iowa State will square off with the Texas Longhorns for the third time this season. And if Iowa State wants to make it to Thursday, it will have to find a way to play better against the Longhorns than the first two times.

“Once [the younger players on the team] find what they’re actually playing for, I think that’s when everything will turn over,” Jackson said. “They’re going through it right now. We’ve got so many new players, the Big 12 is different from a lot of different places.”

Texas needs the victory, too. At 18 wins, their NCAA Tournament resume is a bit shorter than the team would like.

Two of those wins came at Iowa State’s expense. One of them, however, took overtime. And while Texas is certainly a formidable opponent, the Longhorns could be without freshman center Mo Bamba, who has missed the past two games with an injury.

If Iowa State is able to knock off Texas, a date with Texas Tech awaits on Thursday. Iowa State and Texas Tech split the season series, 1-1, with each team winning on its own home court. Both games were decided by exactly 18 points, too.

After that, the bracket will have to unfold before teams know who they’ll be facing. But if history holds true, the Kansas Jayhawks likely await on the other side of the bracket if Iowa State is somehow able to channel ‘Hilton South’ for the first three days of the tournament.

“I’m ready to go to Kansas City and try and win this Big 12 Championship,” Jackson said. “That’s what it’s all about. I’m expecting coach Prohm, the rest of the team to come with it. We can get it done, I believe we can get it done.”