AMES — As Iowa State coach Fred Hoiberg watches video of 14th-seeded UAB — his third-seed Cyclones’ first-round NCAA Tournament foe Thursday in Louisville, Ky. — he’ll see at least one familiar face.
That visage belongs to a former bitter Big Eight rival, former Kansas Jayhawk Jerod Haase, who’s in his third season as the Conference USA Tournament champion Blazers’ head coach.
“Had some really good battles with him,” Hoiberg said less than 24 hours removed from celebrating a Big 12 Tournament title-clinching win over Haase’s old team. “He was very difficult to guard when he played at Kansas. So I know that team is very well-coached and well-prepared. Working under Roy Williams for as long as he did obviously taught him very well. So we’ll get to work tonight. Start putting some preparation together.”
Hasse played at Kansas from 1994-97. Hoiberg became “The Mayor” in Ames from 1992-95.
So they’re baseline-based paths didn’t cross that many times, but Hoiberg saw enough of Haase to be very impressed heading into their South Regional matchup.
The Tim Floyd-led Cyclones beat Haase and the Jayhawks 69-65 in Ames, was blown out 91-71 in Lawrence, and regrouped for a thrilling 80-72 overtime win in the Big Eight Tournament semifinals.
That may seem like ancient history to some of you. It’s not to Hoiberg.
“We had some great matchups,” Hoiberg said. “We’d beat them in close games here and they’d beat us handily at Kansas, was usually how it worked when we played those teams. He’s an unbelievable competitor. That’s one think I know about Jerod Haase. We actually spoke at a clinic together last year and talked a little bit about the old times. But yeah, it’s good. I don’t obviously know much about them.”
That will swiftly change as Hoiberg and his staff develop a game plan for the upstart Blazers.
UAB struggled in the nonconference season, limping into Conference USA play with a 4-9 mark. The Blazers lost four of seven league games to close the regular season before forging a three-win run to the tournament title.
Looking for any common opponents? You’re out of luck. The Cyclones (25-8) and Blazers (19-15) are as different from each other as Birmingham is from Ames.
KenPom.com ranks ISU at No. 13 and UAB at 121. The site gives the Cyclones an 86 percent win probability and pegs the score at 81-69.
So there’s that.
“We know in the tournament, teams are going to give us their best shot, especially a team like UAB,” said point guard Monté Morris, who has given the Cyclones best shots by molding a 4.91-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio. “They’re coming off a big conference championship and we’ve just got to take the first punch at them. We don’t want them to get comfortable and let their fans that they do bring get into it. We’re going to go out and just (be) us.”
That’s obviously formidable — and resilient. Five straight comebacks from double-digit deficits makes ISU’s players both proud and disturbed.
“I think we’re feeling really confident about ourselves, but that being said, we have a lot of stuff to work on,” forward Georges Niang said. “Teams are going to try to exploit us, especially in the first half, so we’re definitely going to have to work on that.”
Speaking of firsts, just one of the Cyclones’ five starters hasn’t played in at least one NCAA Tournament.
Paging big man Jameel McKay …
“My adrenaline is rushing right now,” he said. “I was feeling a little sore before our name got called. Once our name was called I was like, ‘Let’s play.’ It’s exciting. I’m happy we’ve got a fast turnaround. Because we play right away, I don’t get a chance to think about it much. I’m just really excited."
So is the fan base, which is busily preparing plans for a drivable trip one night after drowning out rock-chalk types in Kansas City.
“That might be the first time ever that Kansas fans have been outnumbered at the Big 12 Tournament in Kansas City,” Hoiberg said. “So they’ll travel in bunches. They’ll be loud, they’ll be boisterous, they’ll help the economy in Louisville It’s going to be great to see a lot of cardinal and gold down there.”
So the fuse is lit for Thursday’s 11:40 a.m. tip (TruTV). The madness starts. ISU’s confident it can rise above it — as well as its seed.
“We’re locked in,” guard Naz Long said. “We’re very, very locked in. (Saturday) was great, but I feel like we’re past that already. We’re ready to make a deep run in the tournament.”
A Cyclone win coupled with a SMU win would set-up a second-round matchup between Hoiberg and his former Indiana Pacers coach, Larry Brown. But first Brown must get past one of his many former schools in UCLA (and, of course, Steve Alford).
“I absolutely think the world of (Brown),” Hoiberg said. “One of the best coaches, detail guys, that I’ve ever been around. (He’s) facing UCLA, with the storyline there with Larry being a UCLA guy. But obviously our main focus, sole focus right now will be on UAB.”