Friday, March 16, 2012
Cyclones make waves by beating champs
By Brian Bennett
LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- Chris Allen played his first three years at Michigan State, experiencing two Final Fours and a Sweet 16 with the Spartans.
His old team expected to do great things in March. Back in the NCAA tournament as a senior with Iowa State, Allen senses an entirely different feeling.
"People see us and say, 'That's Iowa State. Who are they?'" Allen said. "But you can't worry about the name on the front of the jersey. You just have to worry about the players."
Plenty of folks saw the name Connecticut and automatically assumed the Huskies would brush past Iowa State in the second round of the NCAA tournament. UConn was the defending national champion, after all, while the Cyclones were a collection of castoffs at a program that hadn't gone dancing in seven years. Forget that Iowa State was seeded one spot higher, at No. 8, than Connecticut. Everybody was already looking forward to a third-round matchup between UConn and top seed Kentucky.
Except that Iowa State's players were better than Connecticut's. A lot better, and they showed it during Thursday's 77-64 dethroning at the KFC Yum! Center.
The Cyclones felt disrespected leading into the game and believed they would win. In the waning seconds, big man Royce White barked at the Iowa State radio crew, "I told you!"
"Nobody picked us to win," White said. "That bothered me a lot. Personally, I was as tuned-in as I've been all year to this game as far as my effort."
White showed it on the first possession of the game, throwing down a dunk off a rebound to set an early tone. Twelve minutes later, Iowa State led 36-14 after what coach Fred Hoiberg called his team's best stretch of the season.
Scott Christopherson (15 points against UConn) transferred to Iowa State from Marquette in 2008.
The Cyclones hit eight of their first 11 shots and drilled six 3-pointers in the first half. But this wasn't simply the story of a team getting hot from outside and pulling off an upset. Iowa State didn't make a 3-pointer in the second half and instead took it to the Huskies physically, outrebounding them 41-24 and just wanting it more. After UConn cut the lead to six points at the under-eight-minutes timeout, Iowa State responded by scoring seven consecutive points and grabbing four offensive rebounds during that stretch.
"That's just hunger," White said. "That's us being the underdog."
UConn suffered from the same disinterested, disjointed vibe that plagued the team all year. At one point after a Cyclones run, Jim Calhoun called timeout and just stared at his team from the court for several moments, unsure of what to say. He later said the Huskies got caught "being nothing more than a street sign as [Iowa State] went by us by a thousand miles." With a 2013 tournament ban looming plus Calhoun's uncertain future, who knows what path Connecticut takes the next couple of years?
Truth is, Iowa State presents a tougher matchup for Kentucky than UConn ever did. This is a team that beat Kansas, Kansas State and Baylor this season and plays an odd style that is not easy to prepare for in one day.
"We have a lot of stuff that's abnormal to the college game," guard Chris Babb said.
That starts with White, a 6-foot-8, 270-pounder who often brings the ball up the court and initiates the offense. Hoiberg puts four shooters on the court with him most of the time. Teams that can spread Kentucky out and shoot -- think Vanderbilt and Indiana -- can beat the Wildcats, though it will still take a monumental effort.
There's very little that's conventional about Iowa State. Hoiberg had never coached at any level before he was hired two years ago. Looking for a quick fix, he brought in six transfers, four of whom are playing for the Cyclones in this tournament. Some of them had checkered pasts.
"It's kind of weird, because we have so many different people coming from so many different places," said guard Scott Christopherson, who transferred in from Marquette in 2008. "But we have all bonded together."
They used that togetherness to knock off the defending champions. Up next is the No. 1 team in this year's tournament. Win that one, and people will know all about Iowa State.
"There's nothing better you could have as far as a plot line for an underdog that wants to achieve something great," White said. "We've got to embrace the spot we're in now."