No. 7 Michigan.
Five-star recruit Rashad Vaughn.
Wowee, it's gonna be a fun one Sunday.
"Everybody in Ames is ready," sophomore guard Naz Long said this week."
"Dick Vitale coming here for the first time creates some electricity in that building," ISU head coach Fred Hoiberg said. "To be able to play a team that was playing for a national championship a year ago with a lot of those key contributors coming back, it's a heck of a test for us but it's also exciting and will show us a lot about our team and where we are right now."
The Cyclones have the 70th toughest schedule in the nation, per kenpom.com, and that swings into earnest Sunday night at Hilton Coliseum (5 p.m. on ESPN2) against a Wolverines team that's ranked in the top 10 — No. 15 per kenpom's pythagorean ratings — and returns several key players from the 2012-13 iteration that came within six points of winning the NCAA Tournament.
Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway Jr. are gone to the NBA, but Michigan still has Nik Stauskas, Glenn Robinson III, Jon Horford and Mitch McGary, whose status is questionable, along with freshman point guard Derrick Walton Jr.
McGary, the 6-foot-10 center, passed up the chance at a lottery selection to return to Michigan for his sophomore season. A lower back injury has kept him out of action since September; head coach John Beilien remains coy on the matter, telling reporters Friday: "If he dresses, he'll play, but we'll decide if he dresses when he's ready. So if you ever see him in warmups, he's going to play."
"Mitch will play when he's ready to play. We'll just keep that going in that direction and when he's ready he's ready and that will sort of probably be my call. But he's made progress and he continues to do so."
Last season McGary was vital to Michigan's tournament run, with the following lines (points, rebounds, blocks) in the six games:
13-9-1, 21-14-0, 25-14-1, 11-9-2, 10-12-2, 6-6-1.
"We're gonna prepare like he'll be out there playing and we'll see what happens," Hoiberg said. "He's just physical a force as any player in the country."
The Cyclones are in a similar will-he-or-won't-he boat with power forward Melvin Ejim, who, to Hoiberg's knowledge, didn't get in any work as of Wednesday, but is trying to accelerate the recovery of his knee injury.
Against two lowly opponents, the Wolverines have won, 69-42 and 93-59, while going bonkers from downtown. Michigan made 15 three-pointers Tuesday against South Carolina State, underscoring its preferred style: Thirty-seven percent of the Wolverines' total points have come on three-pointers, No. 44 nationally.
Stauskas is the Wolverines' long-range gunner. The sophomore made five Tuesday, proof his offseason addition of 15 pounds of muscle mass didn't do anything do hinder his touch (44 percent from behind the arc last year).
"I absolutely love that kid," Hoiberg said, to the shock of nobody. "Man, he shoots that thing."
Iowa State's percentage in above category is 44.6, 11th nationally.
Other difficult non-conference tests remain, as does a top-heavy Big 12 slate, so the Cyclones know this win will have little impact in their hunt for a third consecutive NCAA tourney bid. That's to say, if they lose, it's not a big deal.
The same stakes apply to the recruitment of Vaughn, the No. 2 shooting guard in the country from Findlay Prep, whose long-awaited official visit is this weekend. The newest Cyclones, Clayton Custer and Jameel McKay, will serve as unofficial Iowa State ambassadors — "look at this, look at what we can build" — and a rabid Hilton Coliseum is prepared to acknowledge Vaughn's presence in some way.
Says Scout.com national analyst Evan Daniels: Hoiberg and his staff have established a great relationship with Vaughn, his assistant coach Pete Kaffey and his family. I don't think Vaughn is going to make a commitment any time soon. … So while Iowa State is in good shape, there's a ways to go in this deal."
Win or lose, it shouldn't matter in the hunt for Vaughn, who'll draw his recruitment out until the spring. He knows well enough, and he has enough people in his ear, not to put too much stock into one game.
"[Fans and recruits] will see an unbelievable atmosphere, that I know," said Hoiberg, who isn't permitted to mention unsigned recruits per NCAA rules. "I don't know if we'll win the game but they will see an unbelievable atmosphere."
But the total environment, the iconic and crazy Vitale in town and a jumping Cyclone Alley and ESPN insignias hanging around the Coliseum, could — could — be the winning pitch, especially compared to UNLV, the other front-runner, and its Thomas & Mack Center, so big at 18,500 the noise doesn't dance around as much.
"That's one of the biggest recruiting pitches we have is our fan base, our arena," Hoiberg said. "The players we're recruiting right know, they know a lot about Hilton Coliseum. To be able to see it this early in the season … people are excited for that game, people we're recruiting are excited about it."
When Long was being recruited, he took in an Iowa State game against Kansas and called it "one of the best experiences in my life."
"It doesn't get any better than a top 10 team coming into Hilton," he said. "They're gonna see the full potential of Hilton come Sunday. Hilton Magic in live form — it won't get any better than that."