Lucky and good: Cyclones streak to Sweet 16
AMES, IOWA >> For years, nothing seemed to break in Iowa State's favor during the NCAA Tournament.
This might finally be the March for the Cyclones.
Iowa State (23-11) is back in the Sweet 16 for the second time in three years, and this time the Cyclones are healthy and rolling heading into Friday's game against top-seeded Virginia in Chicago. If it can upset the Cavaliers, Iowa State will face either Syracuse or Gonzaga, both double-digit seeds, for a trip to the Final Four.
"I feel great for the kids because it's about them," first-year coach Steve Prohm said. "I believe we have more in us."
Iowa State's five straight NCAA Tournament appearances represent the best such streak in school history. But until this season, the Cyclones never seemed to find any luck.
In 2012, Iowa State ran into eventual national champions Kentucky in the second round and got blown out. Three years ago, the Cyclones were poised for an upset of second-seeded Ohio State in the round of 32 before a few calls and an Aaron Craft 3-pointer sent them home with a 78-75 loss.
Star Georges Niang broke his foot in the opening game in 2014, and the season ended in the Sweet 16 with a loss to Connecticut, another eventual national champion. Last year, Iowa State was upset by 14th-seeded UAB.
But everything has gone right for the Cyclones so far.
Iowa State was matched against a team that runs a similar up-tempo offense in the opening round. Iona, a 13 seed, couldn't keep up and fell 94-81. The Cyclones then caught a break when Arkansas-Little Rock upset Purdue, whose big men would have presented a massive challenge for Iowa State's smallish frontcourt. Iowa State throttled the Trojans, 78-61.
The Cyclones offense rolled through the first weekend behind Niang, averaging 86 points while shooting at least 50 percent in each game.
"We're just moving the ball really well. We're making the extra pass. We're going through Georges. He's been out there really killing them," forward Matt Thomas said.
Iowa State might have also helped itself by bowing out the Big 12 Tournament early.
The Cyclones fell to Oklahoma in its first game, partly because standout point guard Monte Morris was still dealing with a strained shoulder injury he sustained in a loss at Kansas. But the few extra days of rest seemed to help Morris get healthy again, as he scored 20 points with eight assists and three steals in the win over Iona.
"I was in a lot of pain," he said. "It's definitely not 100 percent, but it's definitely getting back to that way. I was just happy I was out there. I was smiling, I've got my legs back under me, so I feel like it was a good time for me to back."
Iowa State will be an underdog to Virginia, which was ranked No. 4 in the final poll. But Iowa State has already beaten three top-five teams this season, and a fourth win would put the Cyclones within one game of the Final Four.
"We have more to play for than just playing in the Sweet 16," center Jameel McKay said.