Saturday, March 11, 2017

Iowa State: 2016-17 Big XII Men's Basketball Champions

KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- Steve Prohm hadn’t even yet helped cut the net from the rim Saturday night, and already the Iowa State coach was thinking about the next challenge.

“The NCAA tournament is totally different,” Prohm said over the cheers of some 15,000 ISU fans who packed into the Sprint Center on Saturday night as the Cyclones beat West Virginia 80-74 to secure the Big 12 tournament title.

“The biggest thing I’m going to do tomorrow is get them refocused. Let them enjoy tonight and then get focused and stay humble, so we can try to win games in the tournament as well. Because when this team’s good offensively, I think we’re very, very tough to beat.”

Iowa State played better than good offensively in Kansas City -- it was great. The Cyclones shot 54.2 percent Saturday against the Mountaineers’ aggressive defense, less than 1 percentage point below their rate from the first two games, victories over Oklahoma State and TCU.

Iowa State improved to 9-1 in the Big 12 tournament over the past four seasons. This victory marked its third tournament championship over that time. Success in Kansas City is not the problem.

This Big 12 tournament title is the third in four seasons for Iowa State senior Monte Morris (11), but he and the Cyclones haven't advanced past the Sweet 16 in any of those years. Jamie Squire/Getty Images

It’s winning consistently in the subsequent games that proves troublesome for the Cyclones. They’re 4-3 in the NCAA tournament since 2014 and last advanced past the Sweet 16 in 2000.

As Prohm said, the NCAA tournament presents a different kind of challenge than this little trip to Kansas City.

But what if doesn’t?

A peek at the NCAA tournament bracket shows regional games March 23 and 25 at the Sprint Center. There would exist no better place for Iowa State to clear that next hurdle than at its home away from home, though it’s likely too much to ask for the selection committee on Sunday to position the Cyclones for a return trip.

Regardless, an opportunity awaits. Iowa State starts four senior guards: Big 12 tournament MVP Monte Morris, Deonte Burton, Naz Mitrou-Long and Matt Thomas.

They combined for 53 points as Iowa State beat WVU for the first time in three tries this season, and they hold the key to success for the Cyclones next week and beyond.

“We’ve still got a month or so together,” Thomas said amid confetti and hand slaps after the buzzer.

A month? That’s a lofty expectation, indicative of the Cyclones’ collective mindset after much of their veteran core endured a first-round loss to UAB on the heels of a Big 12 tournament title in 2015.

“We won this same tournament, and the next week of our lives was miserable,” Morris said. “So that’s definitely in our seniors’ heads. We’ve just got to keep everyone together. That’s our job, us being seniors.”

Despite the electric atmosphere for Iowa State in Kansas City, Thomas said the Cyclones don’t want to remember Saturday as “the highlight of our season.”

“You can’t stay on this high for too long,” he said. “Losing in the first round, that taste, that’s something you don’t forget. I still have nightmares about that game.”

Last year, the Cyclones, as a No. 4 seed, beat Iona and Little Rock before losing to Virginia. In 2014, they fell in the Sweet 16 to eventual national champion UConn.

Before Saturday's victory, ESPN’s Joe Lunardi slotted the Cyclones as a No. 6 seed. Seemingly, at 23-10, Iowa State can’t rise above the fourth line.

It likely makes for a difficult road, not that any are easy in March.

“We can’t be complacent,” Burton said. “We have to be as hungry as we [were] coming here. That’s the biggest thing: just not losing the ‘want’ to win, the ‘will’ to win.”

Seems that the Cyclones, without much prodding from Prohm, have decided not to celebrate this championship for long.

Prohm finally got his turn on the ladder, holding his son, Cass, who turned 2 on Saturday, in his left arm as he cut the final strand of the net with his right hand. The Iowa State band serenaded Cass with a playing of “Happy Birthday.”

It was a party, for sure.

But when Prohm -- in his second season at Iowa State after four at Murray State -- left the court, his message quickly grew clear.

“There is more story to write,” he said. “That’s what I told them in the locker room. Stay humble. Do the right thing, and let’s get ready for next week.”
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