AMES — Last season at this time, the Iowa State men’s basketball team wasn’t playing for anything.
The NCAA Tournament was out of the question. Nick Weiler-Babb, Solomon Young and Hans Brase were all injured.
The Cyclones have made a 180-degree turn this season.
Iowa State (20-8, 9-6) will play Texas (15-13, 7-8) in Austin, Texas, at 1 p.m. Saturday (ESPN2) for an opportunity to improve its Big 12 seed and, potentially, its NCAA seed.
Senior guards Nick Weiler-Babb and Marial Shayok are the only two players on Iowa State’s roster that have been in this situation — Shayok when he was at Virginia.
“It’s a great feeling,” Weiler-Babb said. “Me and Marial have talked about it. We have to preach to these guys to not lose focus and have that vision of playing in March and playing in the NCAA Tournament.”
Coach Steve Prohm is also familiar with what it takes to finish a season strong.
In the 2016-17 season, Iowa State finished the regular season winning six of its final seven games and won the Big 12 tournament.
What’s Prohm’s formula for finishing strong?
“Have fun, enjoy playing and let’s get better,” Prohm said. “There’s still a ton to play for in terms of conference seeding, total number of wins, trying to get the best NCAA seed we can. Two of these last three games are quadrant one games.
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“When you look at all our numbers right now, you probably think we’re a 4-seed — we’re 13-14 in all the major things people look at. Maybe we can make a great push to get to a 3-seed, I don’t know.”
Iowa State has proven it has that type of push in it, winning six of seven earlier this year. But the Cyclones have gone through their fair share of ups and downs this season, most recently losing three of four before beating Oklahoma on Monday.
“A couple weeks ago, did we hit a wall, did we get tired, who knows? But the season can get long,” Prohm said. “It’s good to get a couple of days off. We just need to play well going down the stretch because if we’re playing well, we’re going to put ourselves in a really good situation.”
Freshman guard Tyrese Haliburton said the team doesn’t feel any pressure. While the Cyclones are playing for seeding, it’s not like they’re still competing for a Big 12 regular-season title anymore, so Haliburton believes that will allow the team to play with more freedom instead of playing tight.
“Get rest, have great practices, have a lot of fun and get better because March is the best time of year,” Prohm said. “That’s why we’re here.”
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