Back in November, few outside of Ames, Iowa, would have predicted Iowa State as the last undefeated team in the Big 12. Yet, as the eight teams in the Hawaiian Airlines Diamond Head Classic (which starts Sunday and will be broadcast on ESPNU) land in Honolulu, the No. 17 Cyclones are 8-0 and all alone in first place.
“We knew we had some great early-season tests,” said coach Fred Hoiberg, who is 70-39 in four seasons at his alma mater. “They’ve handled adversity well. That’s been a key to our early-season success.”
For “The Mayor” to become King of Diamond Head, his horses will have to deliver. His main thoroughbred is 6-foot-6 senior forward Melvin Ejim, the conference’s second-leading scorer (18.7 ppg) and sixth-leading rebounder (7.7 rpg), who has starred despite hyperextending a knee at the end of preseason.
ISU is fast and unselfish offensively, leading the conference in scoring, 3-point baskets and assists. The Cyclones also lead in rebounding and field goal defense, and are second in three-point field goal defense. Although the favorite, Hoiberg is wary of the competition.
“It’s a great field,” he said. “Top to bottom … any team can beat any other in the field.
Here's a look at the rest of the field competing in the Diamond Head Classic:
What's at stake? The Zips, back-to-back MAC champions, need to replace key pieces, including center Zeke Marshall. They’ll look to gain momentum heading into conference play.
Who's hot? Demetrius "Tree" Treadwell is taking root in the middle, averaging 13.3 points and 8.0 rebounds and a block a game.
Who is the surprise? Sophomore big Pat Forsythe has shot 52 percent from the field, blocked a shot per game and been tough on the offensive glass.
Projection: There’s time to pull it together and battle for the MAC -- the Zips might not have that luxury in Honolulu.
Boise State (8-2)
What's at stake? The Broncos’ 8-0 start was the best in school history, before it lost at Kentucky. High-octane Boise wants to prove it can run with the big boys.
Who's hot? The junior tandem of Anthony Drmic and Derrick Marks averages north of 36 points a game. Drmic, a 6-6 wing from Australia, averages 18.6 ppg, while Marks, a 6-3 guard from Chicago, shoots 48.4 percent from the field and 82.8 percent from the free-throw line.
Who is the surprise? Senior guard Jeff Elorriaga has been a surprise for how hot he’s shooting -- 62.3 percent from the field, 60 percent from behind the arc.
Prediction: Boise State needs to keep the pace fast and hit 3s to prove its fast start wasn’t a product of its schedule.
George Mason (5-4)
What's at stake? Occasionally offensively challenged, the Patriots have a tough draw, starting with Iowa State.
Who’s hot? Senior forward Bryon Allen has shot almost 40 percent from 3-point range this season, hitting a career-best four 3-pointers against South Florida.
Who is the surprise? Sophomore forward Marko Gujanicic, the 6-8, 224-pound forward from Serbia, scores 11.4 ppg, more than double last season’s output.
Prediction: It’ll be a grind as uptempo opponents will test George Mason’s defensive principles and take the Patriots out of their comfort zone.
What's at stake? The Big West-leading Rainbow Warriors are 7-2 for the second time in coach Gib Arnold’s four seasons. Are they a well-kept secret or a result of their schedule?
Who’s hot? Senior forward Christian Standhardinger, 6-8 and 220 pounds, leads UH and ranks among Big West leaders in scoring, rebounding, blocks and steals.
Who is the surprise? Junior guard Garrett Nevels, a junior college transfer, shoots 55 percent from 3-point range and is second in the conference with 22 3-point field goals made.
Prediction: The Rainbow Warriors can score, but running with the big dogs in this tournament might be too much.
Oregon State (5-2)
What's at stake? The Beavers miss suspended junior forward Eric Moreland and are struggling to find the right formula. Playing Akron, plus Iowa State or George Mason won’t help.
Who’s hot? The outside-inside senior tandem of guard Roberto Nelson and forward Devon Collier rank 1-2 in the Pac-12 in scoring. Nelson (24.7 ppg) hits 1.7 3-pointers per game. Collier is a bucket behind (22.7 ppg).
Who is the surprise? Sophomore Victor Robbins, a 6-7, 197-pound swingman, chips in 7.3 points and 3.1 rebound in 21.4 minutes per game.
Prediction: The Beavers need contributions from the perimeter to keep teams from collapsing on Collier, and a dependable third option.
Saint Mary’s (8-0)
What's at stake? The Diamond Head is the Gaels’ opportunity to prove there is room for two West Coast Conference powers in the Top 25.
Who’s hot? Junior forward Brad Waldow scores a team-high 17.6 ppg (fourth in the WCC) and is second with a 65.1 field goal percentage.
Who is the surprise? Transfer junior guard Kerry Carter supplies instant offense off the bench, connecting on 50 percent of his 3-point attempts.
Prediction: The Gaels are a tournament favorite and, with a game against South Carolina and a rematch from last week with Boise or a contest vs. Iowa State, are a must-watch.
South Carolina (2-4)
What's at stake? Coach Frank Martin’s Gamecocks start two freshmen, two sophomores and a junior and have played mostly on the road. Diamond Head will be an interesting neutral-court test as USC continues to come together heading into the SEC.
Who’s hot? Freshman guard Sindarius Thornwell, a 6-5, 206-pound guard scores 12.7 points per game on 41.7 percent shooting from the 3-point line.
Who is the surprise? Sophomore forward Mindaugas Kacinas, a 6-7, 210-pound player from Lithuania, grabs a team-high 7.8 rebounds per game, almost half off the offensive glass, and scores 7.5 points on 56.3 percent shooting.
Prediction: The Gamecocks are young and talented and go a long way on emotion. Those same things also make them unpredictable and vulnerable.