Thompson: I thought it was a real positive Big 12 Tournament for Iowa State. What made it that was, number one, you have to win the first game in any tournament. That was an even-steven game going in. Of course we had lost to Texas A&M at their place during the year.
We had talked about getting off to a good start and not getting in a hole, and boy did we get off to a good start. We opened up and shot the ball well. We just played really fine basketball and took the game away from them at the start, then just played the game out. There were some really good efforts again in that game.
Then we moved on to Kansas. At that time, I felt in my own mind that Roy Williams and his staff are wishing in the second round they could play Texas A&M instead of Iowa State. I think they have that much respect for Larry Eustachy and the fact that we had played a fairly good game against Kansas in Lawrence.
I thought we came out in the Kansas game and hung in there. At the start of the second half we got it to a 10-point game. We made a little run to get it to 10, then they missed, we had two kids go up for the rebound and happen to lose control of it. If we go down there and hit a shot, it's either an eight- or seven-point game. Then maybe we put some doubt in Kansas' mind and put some pressure on them. But instead they scored quick, we missed and they scored real quick. Pretty soon it was a 16-point game and we were fighting it.
But I thought we still gave good effort. Jackson Vroman did a nice job. We attacked Kansas on the inside very well.
CN: For an Iowa State team that had lost its last two opening games in the conference tournament, did winning number one in Dallas this season have more meaning than it would otherwise?
Thompson: I think it was important to get that out of the books – losing in the first round. That win was important in another manner, because we now found ourselves in the NIT Tournament. People were probably thinking we'd be in the NIT if we didn't win the first round, but weren't sure. But if we won that first-round game, we knew we were in.
I remember sitting down with Coach Eustachy at the start of the season and talking about what kind of year we thought they could have. I said if they could get 16 or 17 wins out of this season, they'll have been doing one heck of a job, especially with all of the new players in. That was even before realizing we weren't going to have a couple guys for the year.
CN: Vroman said in yesterday's press conference that this team is still not playing its best basketball, but is much better than it was earlier in the season. Do you agree with his assessment?
Thompson: I think that this team is going to continue to grow and improve. There's no doubt we're playing better than we were earlier. We've won about half of our last six or seven games. With the inexperience that we had, three new guys were in there carrying a lot of the weight. They had to come in and adjust to a new system. All of that takes time. This team is going to continue to improve, no matter how many more games we play.
The more practices we get in right now and games we win – that's going to be that much more beneficial to building for next year's team.
CN: The nature of fans is to get higher expectations with early success. Do you think the expectations got over-inflated with 10 wins over 11 games to start the season?
Thompson: There's no doubt about it, you open up and beat Iowa in Iowa City. Then you combine that with the fact that you've had a couple of championship teams here prior to a year ago, yeah, fans expectations are going to be high. I remember reading on the internet a couple of times where people said we were definitely in the NCAA Tournament. That preseason schedule is a little bit different than the conference schedule, and adjusting.
You can get by with a lot of things in your play that aren't sound and solid when its against lesser-talented teams than what you play in this league. As soon as we hit January, we had to open up against four of the best teams in the country and play two of them on the road. That was a tough road to go for our team, and our kids lost some confidence because of having to play those top teams. (Tim) Barnes probably lost some confidence because he's going up against the best guards in the country.
But on the other hand, maybe it paid some dividends down the line in that we had to play against those tough teams early. We found out what it took to compete against them. But had we started out earlier against some other opponents, maybe we would not have beaten some of those teams later in the year.
CN: Given your earlier assessment of the team's play in Dallas, how much of a benefit will an NIT berth combined with a solid showing in the Big 12 Tournament be for next season?
Thompson: It's two-fold, really. You're adding some more practice time with the experience of playing more games. You'll add that much more practice time to what has been a young team. That helps yourself get ready for next year. It's certainly going to be a positive. If we can put a couple more wins on this season, it certainly looks better on the won-loss record.
The other thing is you just can't minimize the importance and positives of playing in a tournament of one game and your out. That goes back to the Big 12 Tournament – it was great for our kids to win that first game and advancing to play a second game in the tournament. You kind of get that feel. It's the same thing with what the NIT can do for you. You're hoping that will build for this team going into next year, so that they can get into the NCAA Tournament.
CN: How about a few comments on ISU's upcoming opponent on Wednesday night, Wichita State?
Thompson: You've got a team that's 18-11 and 12-6 in their conference. They finished up strong by winning six of their last nine games, and took Creighton down to a one-point ball game in the Missouri Valley Conference. Much like Iowa State, they've got a mix of a few veterans and youth, and is probably playing their best basketball near the end of the season.
It's a well-balanced team and they shoot the ball really well from the field at about 48 percent. They shoot 73 percent from the foul line. They've got balanced scoring as well, with nine guys scoring anywhere from five to 15 points. They've had 10 guys during the year that have started games.
What scares you a little bit is that they've out-rebounded opponents by about four a game. They played two Big 12 teams at home. In the Oklahoma State game, they out-rebounded them by 15. That's scary, because we know that we've had problems when we don't rebound well. A critical point is going to be getting on the boards with this team. They're also not a very big team, so they do a good job of blocking off and doing the fundamental things.
CN: The Shockers' leading scorer Randy Burns leads his team in scoring and scored 20 points or more against the likes of OSU, K-State and Creighton in the MVC Tournament. How much of a concern is he to the Cyclone coaching staff?
Thompson: He's their leading scorer, so is going to be a concern. He's probably taken 44 more shots than the next closest guy to him, so you know he's their go-to guy. He hasn't shot the ball as well from the field than a few others, but he's taken more shots. In addition to scoring, he's second in assists, which tells you he can do something else besides just score. He also does a very good job of rebounding.
When you talk about balance, this club has some 3-point shooters. Twenty percent of their field-goal attempts are from the 3-point line, and they've got two guys that average about 45 percent from the field. Burns is a slasher and isn't shooting that well from the 3-point line, but he gets to the foul line.
CN: I know Coach Eustachy didn't want to talk much about the possibility of playing Iowa in the second round. But this unprecedented second matchup of the season would get this rivalry fired back up when spring football had been the talk of both schools.
Thompson: Certainly this Iowa State team better not overlook Wichita State, especially when they can take Creighton to a one-point game. They've been playing better and won at Drake. They played a good schedule and lost at Tulsa by 11 points early in the year. So they're a very capable team and should not be overlooked. It will be a heck of a game, just as Iowa found out with Valparaiso last night.
If there's any team that was excited and looking to the Iowa State game, it's Iowa since the Cyclones beat them down in Iowa City. They're looking at the revenge factor and getting even for the year. One of the key games for Iowa State may be where that game ends up being played. You'd hope that the Iowa State fans would really come out and support this team. The NIT always looks at what crowds can be drawn. Iowa didn't do very well with crowd attendance, so if Cyclone fans back this team at home maybe Iowa State can host that.
All you have to say is Iowa State plays Iowa, and the excitement meter goes way up. That's all it takes. I don't think it will be any different here. We've got to hope Iowa State gets by Wichita State, but if the two teams meet it would be a great thing to live on for the rest of the summer.
CN: Let's not forget about the NCAA Tournament, though. How do you think Big 12 teams will fare this year?
Thompson:It bothered me that Texas got beat rather handily in that game by Texas Tech. I like Oklahoma and I think Kansas has got a good shot because of their experience and guy on the inside and guy on the outside. The one thing that might bother them is getting into the tournament and playing a lot of teams that will play more zone than you see in our league. That could bother Kansas a little bit, in that they don't have the great outside shooting. I hope that (Hollis) Price is healthy for Oklahoma.
I see our Big 12 teams doing well. You've got Arizona having an advantage, because they'll be in their home area. Kansas has to travel out there. Texas could end up playing in San Antonio. You also can't discount Kentucky and Arizona. They've got tremendously talented teams and depth.