KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Malcontents.
Talented cast-offs and never-will-bes.
Choice terms such as these were trotted out by some to describe Iowa State coach Fred Hoiberg’s transfer-laden basketball team in the preseason, but new, less disparaging words have come to define the resurgent 2011-12 Cyclones.
“He did a great job with who he selected,” said the star-formerly-known-as-a-misfit Royce White, who earned first-team all-Big 12 honors and was named newcomer of the year. “He picked a group of guys who had something to fight for and were hungry for something.”
That something has rekindled optimism in the fan base, drawn accolades from national names and set ISU hurtling happily into the March Madness conversation.
First stop, the Big 12 tournament.
The third-seeded and 25th-ranked Cyclones (22-9, 12-6) continue their remarkable, but unfinished journey at 8:30 p.m. Wednesday when they face sixth-seeded Texas (19-12, 9-9) at the Sprint Center.
“They’re my darkhorse to win the Big 12 tournament,” ESPN analyst Fran Fraschilla said Saturday — before ISU’s upset of Baylor. “Iowa State is the darkhorse team because (A) they match up reasonably well with most of the teams in the league; (B) they have a star; and (C) when you’re trading twos for Iowa State threes, that can be a dangerous trade-off.”
“First of all they have a unique player in Royce White,” Fraschilla said. “He’s a guy that can dominate a game without scoring and Fred has put guys around (him) that complement him well. When they’re making threes they can beat anybody in the country.”
ISU’s already ticked off a lot of first-time-since moments this season, but Wednesday’s game offers another chance to change recent history for the better.
If the Cyclones can beat the J’Covan Brown-led Longhorns for the second time in three tries, they’ll win their first Big 12 tournament game since 2005.
They own one conference tournament title, earned in 2000, when Hoiberg was playing for Tim Floyd’s Chicago Bulls and sophomore forward Melvin Ejim — not a transfer — had just turned nine years old.
“We have an opportunity in front of us to do a lot of great things,” said ISU guard Scott Christopherson, the program’s all time leader in 3-point percentage. “A lot of things maybe guys on our team don’t even necessarily realize are possible yet. The first step is playing Texas. They’re a good team. But that’s all we’ve got left: Good teams. And I think we should have confidence because we just went through an 18-game (conference) grind where everybody knows everybody.”
And they all know the real, not imagined Cyclones now — including four new Division I transfers in White (Minnesota), Chris Allen (Michigan State), Chris Babb (Penn State) and Anthony Booker (Southern Illinois).
“You could see it when these guys came in on their visits how serious they were about putting their pasts behind them and moving on in the right direction,” said Hoiberg, tabbed the Big 12 co-coach of the year by his peers. “You look at them, you talk to them, you see how mature they are.”
Doubters beware.“We talked a lot early in the season about coming together and it almost being a brotherhood,” said Christopherson, who transferred to ISU from Marquette in 2008. “And that’s part of the fun of it — the struggle and the misery you go through of not playing as well, knowing you could be much better. Keep fighting and fighting, having that faith that if you stick to the plan eventually it’s going to come together.”