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Past and present: Iowa State at the Big 12 Tournament

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Naz Mitrou-Long and Matt Thomas celebrate during the trophy presentation after beating West Virginia 80-74 on Saturday at the Sprint Center in Kansas City, Missouri, to win the Big 12 Tournament Championship.

Iowa State has a long history at the Big 12 Tournament. The Cyclones have won four championships at the Big 12 Tournament, which dates back to 1997. Only Kansas has won more than the Cyclones.

A history of winning

Winning do-or-die games in March is no easy feat.

Just ask last year’s Virginia team, which became the first 1 seed to lose to a 16 seed in NCAA Tournament history — and by a 20-point margin. Or maybe the improbable runs of George Mason, Butler, VCU and Loyola (Chicago) would get the point across.

Anyone can win any game. One hot shooting night can change the entire story of a team’s season.

That’s what makes Iowa State’s runs in the Big 12 Tournament — including three championships in the last five years — so remarkable.

In fact, two teams — Iowa State and Kansas — have each won three of the last six Big 12 Tournaments. No other team has won it since Missouri (now in the SEC) won the 2012 title, and the last time a current Big 12 member won aside from Iowa State and Kansas was Oklahoma State in 2005.

Iowa State takes down Oklahoma to win Big 12 semifinal game

Junior forward Georges Niang shoots a three-pointer during the Big 12 Championship semifinal game against Oklahoma on March 13 at the Sprint Center in Kansas City, Mo. The Cyclones defeated the Sooners 67-65 to advance to the final championship game against Kansas on March 14. Niang led the Cyclones with 13 points and eight rebounds.

For the Cyclones, it started with a scrappy 2013-14 team that put the program back on the national radar.

After the 2012-13 team snapped a seven-year winless drought at the Big 12 Tournament by winning one game, the 13-14 team took it a step further.

Led by Big 12 Player of the Year Melvin Ejim and redshirt senior guard DeAndre Kane, the Cyclones entered as the 4 seed. Iowa State ripped through Kansas State and top-seeded Kansas before squaring off with 7 seed Baylor in the Saturday finale.

“You knew that a ton of Iowa State fans were gonna make their way down to Kansas City,” said John Walters of the Cyclone Radio Network. “I think people were excited and they certainly felt like Iowa State could make a run down there … You’re getting ready to play Kansas and you’re hearing about all these people driving down 35 and you know it’s gonna be just a tremendous environment for that semifinal with Kansas, and it was.”

The championship game against Baylor was nothing different.

The Cyclones started slow offensively. Baylor led by as much as 10 in the first half. Iowa State was stuck at 14 points with four minutes before halftime.

In the second half, the shots started falling.

CBE Hall of Fame Classic against Alabama

ISU baskeball coach Fred Hoiberg talks to the players on the court during the CBE Hall of Fame semifinal against Alabama at the Sprint Center in Kansas City, Mo., on Nov. 24. The Cyclones defeated the Crimson Tide 84-74.

“We beat Baylor in the finals after starting like 1-for-17,” said then-Iowa State coach Fred Hoiberg. “To stick with it, hang in there and we finally got the lid off the basket against that Baylor zone, which is a very difficult defense to play against with no preparation — it was just a special moment to be able to share that, to cut the nets down in front of our fans.

“We had probably 90 percent of the fans in the Sprint Center that game.”

The following year, Iowa State’s starting lineup was much different. Gone were Ejim and Kane, the team’s two leading scorers from 13-14. But another graduate transfer, redshirt senior Bryce Dejean-Jones from UNLV, had stepped in to help.

Dejean-Jones, junior forward Georges Niang and sophomore point guard Monte Morris excelled that season.

A trend developed at the Sprint Center in Kansas City — by this point, affectionately labeled “Hilton South” by the Iowa State fans who make the trek down — in which the Cyclones would fall behind before making a dramatic comeback to win the game.

It started with Texas in the first round. The Longhorns led by 16 late in the first half and maintained a 67-57 lead with 3:46 to play in the game.

But the Cyclones scored big bucket after big bucket. It ended with a fadeaway jumper at the buzzer from Morris, who finished the game with 24 points and five steals.

The next day came Buddy Hield and the Oklahoma Sooners. Iowa State again fell behind, trailing by 11 in the first half. Four Cyclones reached double figures that day as the Cyclones again won by two points.

In the championship, Kansas raced to a 40-23 lead. The Cyclones scratched and clawed their way back, pulling ahead late thanks to a big game from Niang. Iowa State won its second title in two years.

A lot transpired between that game and the 2017 Big 12 Tournament two years later. Gone was Hoiberg at the helm; coach Steve Prohm had arrived and his team was firing on all cylinders when the calendar flipped to March. The Cyclones won six of their final seven games before heading to Hilton South.

Iowa State opened the tournament with its third win of the season over Oklahoma State. Redshirt senior Deonte Burton’s 22 points led the way in round two as the Cyclones blitzed TCU, 84-63.

The championship game featured a rematch with West Virginia, the only team to sweep Iowa State in Big 12 play that year.

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Sophomore guard Lindell Wigginton attempts to make a shot but gets blocked by Texas Tech sophomore guard Jarret Culver and redshirt senior forward Tariq Owens and misses during the second half of the senior night game. The Cyclones lost 80-73 against the Red Raiders on March 9 at Hilton Coliseum. 

The Mountaineers raced to a 16-8 lead early, but Iowa State kept it close. The second half was all Iowa State. A massive dunk by Burton, along with timely buckets from seniors Morris, Naz Mitrou-Long and Matt Thomas, capped off the third title in four years.

Last season, Iowa State fell in the first round. The Cyclones were the league’s worst seed and limped into the postseason with injuries all over the roster.

After an up-and-down regular season, the Cyclones will be heading back to the NCAA Tournament next week. Their seeding, however, depends largely on what they can do in Kansas City.

The present

This year’s Big 12 Tournament is anybody’s game. Yes, that includes Iowa State.

With Kansas looking far from the towering force that Bill Self’s crew has been for the past 15 years, there are plenty of challengers who have a real shot at lifting the trophy Saturday afternoon. Any team from seed 1-5 winning wouldn’t be a shock.

Iowa State’s road to a fourth championship in eight years begins with a team the Cyclones didn’t beat during the regular season in the Baylor Bears.

Scott Drew’s crew has had the Cyclones’ number, with their 2-3 matchup zone and rebounding ability causing fits that Iowa State couldn’t overcome. In the two teams’ most recent meeting, the Bears outrebounded Iowa State by 18 in a 73-69 victory. The Cyclones were more active against Texas Tech in their regular-season finale and showed a fight they hadn’t in the three weeks before.

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Head coach Steve Prohm talks to freshman forward George Conditt IV before he plays during the game against the Southern University Jaguars on Dec. 9 at Hilton Coliseum. The Cyclones ended the game with a win of 101-65.

But the Bears beat Iowa State even as the Cyclones were considered to be favorites for the Big 12 title, in a similar way to their matchup later in the season. Iowa State’s style matches up perfectly in favor of the Bears, who have overwhelmed the Cyclones with a physical, muck-it-up gameplan.

Prohm will have to adjust for Iowa State to break the snide, and it starts with boxing out Mark Vital. The Bears forward is an excellent offensive rebounder (and averages 7.2 rebounds per game) and a thorn in the Cyclones’ side. After playing 16 minutes in the first meeting, Vital had five offensive rebounds in the second meeting against Iowa State. The return of Makai Mason from injury will be crucial to Baylor’s offense. Mason has 39 points in two games against the Cyclones, and with Iowa State’s 3-point defense lacking mightily of late, he could have a big say in who moves on to play (likely) No. 1 seed Kansas State in the semifinals.

The Cyclones’ counter is Shayok, who practiced Wednesday and will play with a sprained toe Thursday. Shayok had 17 points in his return from injury against Texas Tech, and Iowa State needs his offensive production to succeed: Shayok leads the team in made threes, made two-pointers and points.

Kansas State, the likely semifinal matchup for the Cyclones if they win Thursday, won a share of the Big 12 regular-season title over the weekend with a win over Oklahoma. However, a sore foot is expected to keep star forward Dean Wade out of the Wildcats’ lineup, leaving an opening for the Cyclones (or Bears) to pull an upset and move to the final if they make it past the quarterfinals.

Iowa State split its two matchups with Kansas State, losing 58-57 at home before winning in Manhattan, Kansas, 78-64. Senior Kansas State guard Barry Brown Jr. lit up the Cyclones in both meetings, scoring 23 points in each game and shooting better than 50 percent from the floor.

If the Cyclones get by the Wildcats? A meeting (likely) awaits with either Texas Tech or Kansas.

Iowa State’s risen to the top of the Big 12 three times in the 2010s, but this might be the Cyclones’ toughest road to a title yet.

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