DENVER — Iowa State was welcomed to the Mile High City with humidifiers, quirky questions and facing many doubters ahead of its NCAA tournament run, but the Cyclones moved through a fast-paced focused practice nonetheless.
Here are five storylines from Day 1 in Denver.
1. Iowa State: The Trendy Upset Pick
Pundits around the nation have pointed to Iona as this season’s potential Cinderella and Iowa State is well aware of its critics. One calendar year removed from being upset by 14-seeded UAB, those Iona picks don’t fall on deaf ears.
“We just play better when our back is against the wall,” Jameel McKay said. “If people want to go out there and pick them as a trendy pick, we have to take them really serious because obviously people are. We’re locked in. We’re playing this game as if they’re a top Big 12 team and we’re ready to play.”
The reaction from teammate Monte Morris: “Just smile,” he said Wednesday. “I think we always get counted out. They’re always going against us for some odd reason. We’re just going to let our game talk.”
Much of the reason Iona has drawn interest as a trendy upset pick this March, aside from Iowa State’s early exit last season, is its similar style of play. Prognosticators have pointed to Iowa State’s lack of depth combining with Denver’s altitude and Iona’s high-powered offense as reasons for the pick.
Iowa State doesn’t mind the criticisms.
“I’m sure people are like, ‘Why not pick Iowa State to lose two years in a row in the first round?’” Niang said of what analysts are saying. “That’s fine. I’ve been proving people wrong my whole life.”
“Cinderella teams do happen,” he said, “and we'd be the first to tell you that.”
Thursday, Iowa State expects to avoid being the victim.
2. High altitude? So far, no problem
Former Iowa State All-American Gary Thompson fired off an email to Iowa State coach Steve Prohm this week, providing insight from his experiences dealing with the 5,280-foot elevation Denver has to offer.
So far, the Mile High City has had no ill effects on this Iowa State team, one that might go only six-deep in its NCAA tournament opener Thursday.
“I haven’t noticed it. I think they’re OK,” Prohm said. "You get that first lick of air and you’ve just got to push through it. I don’t think it’s going to be too much of a factor. I say that right now, I may say differently as we go. I think these guys are fine.”
Iowa State has practiced twice to assimilate to the altitude and is taking other precautions too, including putting humidifiers in player’s rooms and forcing water upon them to avoid dehydration.
The two run-and-gun teams will finally find out what effect this elevation might have come Thursday afternoon at the Pepsi Center.
“There's always concern when you put two teams that run in this altitude,” Iona coach Tim Cluess said. “It's going to be interesting to see how this game does play out.”
3. Monte Morris’ Shoulder Feeling Improved
For the first time since he sustained his right shoulder injury, Monte Morris took part in Iowa State’s practice Wednesday when the Cyclones made the trip to the Colorado School of Mines for a morning workout.
Morris, who will receive a shot in his right shoulder before Thursday’s game just as he did last week before the Big 12 quarterfinals, said his shoulder is feeling better than it has since he banged shoulders in the regular season finale.
“My legs feel like 150 percent. My shoulder is actually good,” Morris said. “The shots I took — the five on offense — I made all of them. So that’s a good sign.”
4. The Keys To Beating Iona
Neither Iowa State nor Iona presents any mysterious matchup Thursday in the first-round game of the NCAA tournament. Both run-and-gun teams have been well documented and thus the keys to victory are relatively plain and simple.
Iona averages 74.2 possessions per game and ranks 40th in offensive tempo. Iowa State averages 73.8 possessions per game and ranks 58th in tempo. Neither team ranks highly in most defensive metrics, though defense might ultimately be what decides Thursday’s opening-round game.
“If you can get timely stops, that’s really crucial,” Niang said. “That’s the biggest thing here. If you can get stops when your team is making a run and extend you lead, that’s what’s going to help you win the game.”
How many points will it take to win Thursday?
“Shoot, I don’t know. You should ask Vegas,” Niang said. “We’re just going to go out there and try to win. The game could be 2-0. If we win, I’ll be jumping up and down doing cartwheels.”
Vegas has slotted Iowa State as a 7 ½-point favorite with the over/under for total points set a 167 points. KenPom has Iowa State winning 88-80.
5. Pump-Up Music?
Media Day at the NCAA tournament oftentimes brings with it some quirky questions, and Wednesday wasn’t lacking. One presented to Georges Niang and Monte Morris provided an interesting answer.
Q. What is your pregame hype song?
GEORGES NIANG: You can go first (smiling).
MONTE MORRIS: I usually try to press 'shuffle' and whatever comes on. It can be from slow jams to hype-vibe music. It could go from Justin Bieber to a 'Future' kind of vibe, so...
GEORGES NIANG: I'm a real good kid. I like to think I'm a real good kid. Hopefully if I tell you my music choice, that doesn't throw anybody out. To get going, I listen to DMX, 'Where the Hood At'. That's what's blaring in my head just to get me psyched up and ready to rock.