AMES, Iowa (AP) Iowa State's first NCAA tournament game in seven years will be against the defending national champions. Should the Cyclones win, they'll probably have to face the top overall seed, Kentucky, in the Wildcats' home state.If the Cyclones can make it out of Louisville, they'll certainly have earned it.
Iowa State (22-10) earned a No. 8 seed for the NCAA tournament Sunday and will play ninth-seeded Connecticut (20-13) for the first time, on Thursday in the second round of the South Regional. The winner of that game would likely face the top-seeded Wildcats on Saturday.
"It's a tough draw. But hey, we're up for the challenge," Iowa State coach Fred Hoiberg said.
It's the first NCAA tournament bid since 2005 for the Cyclones (22-10), who earned an at-large selection after being knocked out of the Big 12 tournament by Texas.
Iowa State celebrated its selection to the tournament with a watch party at Hilton Coliseum. A crowd of roughly 1,500 cheered wildly when the Cyclones' seed was shown on the scoreboard hanging over center court.
"That's the goal we've been working towards all season, was to have our name called," Iowa State guard Scott Christopherson said. "But now, as competitors, we're just naturally thinking about what we've got to do to win this first game."
For Iowa State, reaching the NCAA tournament ends a long postseason drought marked by the unceremonious exits of two coaches and the perpetually dashed hopes of a fervent, frustrated fan base.
The Cyclones reached the second round of the NCAA tournament in 2005 and were ranked to start the next season under then-coach Wayne Morgan, but they failed to meet lofty expectations and Morgan was let go. The program had high hopes when it poached Greg McDermott from rival Northern Iowa to replace him, but after four years of fits and starts McDermott left for Creighton, which he led to the NCAA field this season.
The move to hire Hoiberg, the Ames native and former Iowa State star, was seen as a major gamble given that he'd never coached at any level and had spent more than a decade way from the college game. After suffering through a 3-13 season in Big 12 play a year ago, Hoiberg's plan to reinvigorate the roster with Division I transfers paid off.
Royce White was the Big 12's Newcomer of the Year and a first-team all-league pick, and Chris Allen and Chris Babb have proven to be valuable starters in the backcourt.
Iowa State struggled to jell in nonconference play, and nearly lost at home to lowly Mississippi Valley State before the turn of the year. But the Cyclones turned it on in Big 12 play, winning 12 games and beating a pair of top-10 opponents in Kansas and Baylor.
The revival was enough to win over Iowa State's fans as well, as the Cyclones finished second in the Big 12 in attendance.
"Those players deserve a lot of credit. Our staff deserves a lot of credit for getting those guys to believe and to buy in. And now it's here. It's what we play for," Hoiberg said. "I'm excited. I think our guys will play well."
Though the Cyclones and Huskies have never crossed paths, Iowa State was familiar with UConn from the moment they sprung up under the Cyclones in the bracket.
The Huskies are led by wing player Jeremy Lamb, guard Shabazz Napier and freshman post player Andre Drummond, who at 6-foot-10 and 270 pounds is seen as a potential NBA lottery pick.
Oh, and UConn coach Jim Calhoun has won three national championships.
"I know they're incredibly talented. They've got a Hall of Fame coach, they're defending national champions. They're a very, very good team," Christopherson said.
Iowa State is coming off a disheartening loss to the Longhorns, its sixth straight loss in the conference tourney. But the Cyclones got over that loss quickly because they knew they'd have more basketball left to play.
"I met individually (Sunday) with each guy and I told them how the focus needs to go through the roof now," Hoiberg said. "The other thing I told them was to enjoy this, and they deserve to enjoy this for what they've accomplished on the basketball court as a team this year."