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AMES — The leaked bracket eventually found it’s way to most Iowa State players’ phones on Selection Sunday.
It was accurate, region after region — and showed the Cyclones would be a four-seed facing No. 13 Iona in Thursday’s 1 p.m. NCAA Tournament Midwest Region first round game at Denver.
So why not take a peek, which, coincidentally helped CBS’s interminably lengthy bracket unveiling pass by less painlessly?
“I did,” ISU guard Matt Thomas said. “I think most of us did. So it wasn’t as exciting as it potentially could have been, but we’re all just blessed and happy to be in the tournament again.”
That’s five straight times the Cyclones have made the field — a school record. ISU’s been seeded four or better just six times in the program’s 110-year history, so there’s plenty to be thrilled about, despite the lack of suspense.
“It’s whatever,” ISU All-American Georges Niang said about the prematurely disclosed bracket. "I’m just happy to be playing basketball in March and we’ve got a great opportunity against a great Iona team.”
Storylines? Several coalesce around this Big 12 vs. Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference matchup:
*** How’s star point guard Monté Morris’s right shoulder healing? Slowly, but surely. He expects to compete.
“Hopefully I can play at about 70 or 80 percent Thursday as opposed to 40 or 50,” Morris said.
Try keeping the Flint, Mich., native out of this tournament, though. It wouldn’t end well.
“He’s not sitting out this game,” ISU coach Steve Prohm said. “This is for all the marbles now, so he’ll do rehab. He won’t practice. He’ll just stay in rehab until Thursday and be ready to go.”
Rest and rehab’s great, but Morris hopes there’s a bit of divine intervention, as well.
“I’m just trying to take the positive route about it and try to wake up one day and God put a miracle together and I just can be back to being myself,” Morris said. “Other than that, it’s a shoulder injury and it sucks that it’s on my shooting arm.”
*** The Cyclones are early 8.5-point favorites, per VegasInsider.com, but don’t underestimate the Gaels (22-10), who feature explosive scorer A.J. English, a guy Niang and Morris are both familiar with.
“He’s phenomenal,” Niang said of the 22.4 point, five rebound, 6.2 assist-senior. “I’ve played him my whole life. He’s from Maryland. I played him in AAU. He’s just a super talent.”
Who guards the 6-4, 190-pound dynamo? Time will tell. Iona, like ISU, likes to play fast. The Gaels are 40th in adjusted tempo, according to KenPom. The Cyclones check in at No. 58.
“I put something on the board earlier before we came up here, ‘Forget the past, focus on what lies ahead.’ That’s Iona — and no more than Iona,” Prohm said. “Our attention to detail has to be at an all-time high.”
*** Unlike last season, when ISU suffered a shocking first-round upset loss to UAB, it won’t be the first game of the tournament. The Cyclones will suit up for game number four, which happens to match the number of appearances Niang has made at the NCAAs — a program benchmark.
“This is a different team,” Niang said.
But a lot of the same guys are playing on it. Many say the loss to the Blazers will haunt them forever, but a shot of redemption swings into view when they tip-off against the Gaels. It’s back to all-or-nothing mode and ghosts of the past can’t keep pace with the fast-breaking present.
“Last year I think there were a lot of factors that played into that game,” Thomas said. “Obviously coming off a Big 12 Championship you kind of get the feeling of content(ment) — like you did something. Three days later we were the first game in the entire tournament on Thursday morning and I don’t think we were ready for that game. …That obviously motivates us to not let something like that happen again. Like (injured senior) Naz (Mitrou–Long) said, it haunts me, too. I think about it all the time — what could have been or what could have happened. Now this year we have a chance to go out there and avenge that and make sure it doesn’t happen again.”
Two years in a row? Not going to happen. The Cyclones are determined to make sure it doesn’t, anyway.
“You’ve got to have a confidence about you, a swagger about you, that you’re not just going to let something that happened before happen again,” Niang said. “That should be with everything in your power and will to not let that happen. Iona’s a real great team. I’ve watched them a ton on TV against Monmouth, Fairfield, St. Peter’s — you name it, I’ve watched them just because I have a personal interest from being on AJ’s (Adidas Nations camp) team this summer. They’re a really great team. They really get up and down and really do a great job of sharing the basketball and they can really score it. So obviously we’re going to have our hands full, but it’s their will against ours.”
And don’t expect ISU’s to spring any leaks this time around. UAB informs the present, but can’t alter the future. The Cyclones are pointing toward a bright version of the latter — and laying the mental and physical groundwork begins immediately.
“In the moment we knew we weren’t prepared,” Morris said, looking back. “The coaches prepared us, but as far as us focusing on them, I feel like we weren’t that well prepared. But God do everything for a reason and he brought this group back together strong. Now we’ve got Naz being on the outside looking in. He really can let us know if we’re focused or not. So I feel like everything’s a blessing and we’re just taking it in and ready to make run in this tournament.”