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AMES — When the only thing you know is ending your season in the NCAA tournament, it’s a little easier to take it for granted.
Iowa State shooting guard Matt Thomas grew up dreaming of playing in the NCAA tournament. The first year he did was special. Now headed to his fourth Big Dance, some of the luster is gone, but what the tournament represents isn’t.
The Cyclones (23-10) were picked as a No. 5 seed and will take on No. 12 seed Nevada in the first round Thursday in Milwaukee. The winner advances to face No. 4 Purdue or No. 13 Vermont in the Midwest region.
Purdue and Vermont will tip at 6:27 p.m., with ISU and Nevada to follow at approximately 9 p.m. (truTV).
“Obviously it’s awesome, but you kind of just expect it,” Thomas said. “Like I said about Iowa State and our program, we’ve kind of established ourselves and feel like we’re actually known now and respected.
“Getting to the tournament is something we feel like we should do every single year.”
Iowa State has become a regular in the NCAA tournament the last six seasons, becoming the first Division I men’s basketball program from the state of Iowa to make six straight.
The Cyclones, who won their third Big 12 tournament championship in four years on Saturday, are tied with Wichita State for the sixth-longest streak nationally of consecutive NCAA tournament appearances.
“This senior class ... three conference tournament championships, this year a second-place finish, another second-place finish in Fred’s (Hoiberg) last year and they’ve been to two Sweet 16s already,” said Iowa State coach Steve Prohm. “If we’re fortunate enough to advance, they could really have a nice memory book.”
Thomas, Monte Morris and Naz Mitrou-Long, have experienced plenty of highs in their careers, but all three remember the first-round loss to No. 14 seed UAB two years ago. Upsets are commonplace in the NCAA tournament, and the experience of that is one that has motivated those who played in that loss this postseason.
College basketball reporter Seth Davis said, “I spy a 5-12 upset in the making,” when referring to the Iowa State and Nevada matchup during CBS’ unveiling of the bracket.
There have been 46 occasions of a No. 12 beating a No. 5 in NCAA tournament history. One of them was last year when No. 12 Little Rock beat No. 5 Purdue in Denver. Iowa State went on to beat Little Rock to get to the Sweet 16, so players know both sides of the coin personally.
“It just shows how locked in you have to be for the NCAA tournament,” Morris said. “It’s just not a normal game where you can just wake up the day of and prepare and go play a non-conference game or a team on your schedule that you know you can beat.”
Iowa State is playing its best basketball of the season, but so is Nevada (28-6). The Wolf Pack have won their last nine games, most recently beating Colorado State in the Mountain West tournament title game.
Nevada wins with offense. It averages 80.0 points per game, 16.1 assists per game and is the KenPom.com No. 34 adjusted offensive efficiency team. The Wolfpack also shoot 38.5 percent from beyond the arc, making them a similar style team as Iowa State.
“They have some good scorers on their team,” Mitrou-Long said. “They had a great comeback against New Mexico, at their place too. So they have some guys that can shoot it and a big man who is projected to go somewhere in the draft if I’m not mistaken. They’re a great team coached by a great coach.”
Thursday’s date in the NCAA tournament also means a homecoming for Milwaukee natives Deonte Burton, Darrell Bowie and Donovan Jackson. Thomas is also a Wisconsin native — his hometown of Onalaska is on the western side of the state, roughly three hours from Milwaukee.
Burton, who began his career at Marquette, has played at the Bradley Center with the Golden Eagles while Bowie and Jackson played in AAU tournaments there. Returning home on a big stage is an exciting prospect, but that can’t detract from the task at hand, Burton said.
“It shouldn’t be that hard because it’s a business trip,” Burton said. “We came to play basketball, we didn’t come to see friends, we didn’t come to see family, we came to play basketball.”