Close win over MVSU and pep talk from Willoughby sparked second-half surge for Cyclones

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If there was a turning point in the men’s basketball season, it probably came on the last day of 2011. The Cyclones played Mississippi Valley State, a team that arrived in Ames with one win.

ISU built an 18-point lead despite getting only three minutes from Royce White, who was ill. The Delta Devils rallied and even banked in a three pointer at the buzzer to make the final 67-65.

With the Big 12 season next, followers of the program wondered about the team’s prospects. The Cyclones were 10-3 but had endured an up-and-down non-league schedule.

Prior to the trip to Hilton Coliseum, MVSU’s record was built on road games at Notre Dame, DePaul, North Carolina, South Carolina, Arkansas, Northwestern, Ole Miss, Florida and Wisconsin. Its only win came vs. Tennessee State.

Since that stretch, Mississippi Valley State has won 17 consecutive games in the SWAC. The Delta Devils were, apparently, better than advertised when they played at ISU in December.

Nonetheless, after the win on New Years’ Eve afternoon, another event transpired. Former Cyclone great Dedric Willoughby, a teammate of Fred Hoiberg’s with the Bulls, addressed the Cyclones. In a spirited conversation, Willoughby told the group to start representing his alma mater properly and playing with better effort.

There was likely an overreaction to the narrow win vs. MVSU that day. But, the impact of a former Cyclone talking about playing with a purpose was one of the sparks that has led to good things this winter.

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“Road dogs” bringing an improved road reputation to Columbia

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The idea came about prior to the Cyclones’ trip to Texas A&M. At the time, the Iowa State men’s basketball team had lost its only true road games (at Drake and at Michigan).

Senior Scott Christopherson challenged his teammates to develop a tougher mindset away from Hilton Coliseum.

“Road dogs” was the nickname Christopherson suggested with the hope that the team would perform better on the road.

Iowa State’s recent road record in the Big 12 wasn’t great either. The Cyclones, in fact, had not won a road game in three of the prior four seasons. ISU was 2-30 in conference road battles the last four years combined.

The “Road dogs” got that win in College Station by a 74-50 count. In league play this season, they have also collected wins at Texas Tech, at Oklahoma and at Kansas State. The last time Iowa State had a winning road record in the Big 12 was 2000-01.

Missouri, on Wednesday night, is the last true road test of the season. The seventh-ranked Tigers will be formidable. A win would conclude a 5-4 road slate in the Big 12.

“You have to have toughness and be in it together on the road,” Coach Fred Hoiberg said. “You have to find a way to play together as a group (away from home) and that is where our greatest growth as a team has come.”

“Road dogs,” indeed.

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Same formula in win at K-State with some mental toughness added in

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Really, the formula in Iowa State’s huge men’s basketball victory at Kansas State was similar to what it has been for much of the league season.

Royce White controlled play on the way to nine points, 12 rebounds, seven assists and three steals.

A shooter – this time it was Scott Christopherson – went off. Christopherson nailed all five of his three-point attempts and scored 29 points.

Lastly, Chris Babb shut down the opposition’s top scorer. K-State’s Rodney McGruder made just 3-11 shots vs. Babb (two of his makes were uncontested lay-ins).

White, at least one hot shooter and Babb’s defense have been the consistent ingredients most of the Big 12 season.

There was also a mental toughness shown by the Cyclones and in a road game to boot. A 20-1 run by K-State reversed a solid ISU lead and put Fred Hoiberg’s club into comeback mode.

“Today, we kept our composure and had good resiliency,” Hoiberg said. “That shows the growth of our group to play through a run like that.”

Each time out these Cyclones seem to get a bit better. That’s what happens as teams gain confidence.

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Ejim has been spectacular vs. fellow Brewster Academy alums

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Brewster Academy is a boarding school located in Wolfeboro, NH. If you are a Big 12 basketball fan, you have likely heard of Brewster Academy.

Former Iowa State star Craig Brackins played there. So did current Cyclone Melvin Ejim. So did Thomas Robinson (Kansas) and Andrew Fitzgerald (Oklahoma).

So far, Ejim has had four chances this season to go head-to-head with his former Brewster teammates. Physically, he surrenders 27 pounds to Fitzgerald (14th in the Big 12 in scoring) and four inches to Robinson (1st in rebounding, 3rd in scoring and 2nd in FG percentage).

Ejim has 11 double-figure scoring games this year and four of them came vs. KU and OU. His 21 points in Norman and 15 vs. the Jayhawks in Hilton are two of his top scoring games.

In fact, Ejim has averaged 14.5 points and 9.3 rebounds in the battles with Kansas and Oklahoma. His season averages are 9.0 points and 6.7 rebounds.

Perhaps, it is Ejim’s familiarity with the games of Robinson and Fitzgerald. Or, maybe he just gets amped up for those meetings.

Whatever the reason, Ejim has performed at his best level against the elite competition of Robinson and Fitzgerald.

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Lead your league in scoring offense and you’ll likely lead the standings, too

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Maybe, offense does win championships. The old axiom is that defense wins.

Miami and Oklahoma City have the best records (both are 26-7) in the NBA this season. Those teams rank first and third, respectively, in league scoring.

The top five scoring offense averages in college men’s basketball belong to Iona, North Carolina, Belmont, LIU Brooklyn and UNC-Asheville.

The Gaels lead the MAAC at 13-3; the Tar Heels lead the ACC at 11-2; the Bruins lead the Atlantic Sun at 14-2; the Blackbirds lead the Northeast Conference at 14-2; and the Bulldogs lead the Big South at 14-2.

Iowa State does not lead the Big 12 in scoring offense. Kansas, which leads the league standings, is second in scoring (by two-tenths). The Cyclones, however, are one of four schools averaging more than 70 points in conference play. That quartet also includes the only teams with 10 or more conference wins to date.

The beauty of Iowa State’s offense is its balance. Six players are scoring more than 8.4 points per game. All six – Royce White, Scott Christopherson, Chris Babb, Chris Allen, Melvin Ejim and Tyrus McGee – have led the team in scoring this season.

As fans, it’s ok to scream “defense” when the opponent has the ball. But, don’t fall asleep on offense. It appears there is a direct link between scoring and winning, too.

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Moving the ball, Hoiberg says, leads to good looks

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Fred Hoiberg talks relentlessly about floor spacing and moving the ball. In Hoiberg’s view, that generates good looks at the basket. It’s an area that he has seen great progress with this year’s Cyclones.

“Our ball movement has been outstanding, especially the last couple of weeks” Hoiberg said Monday. “We’ve been finding the extra man and making unselfish plays.”

The statistics back up Hoiberg’s assertion. Iowa State has recorded an assist on more than two-thirds (.678) of its field goals the last five games. The Cyclones are fourth – behind Kansas, Missouri and Baylor – in the Big 12 in percentage of field goals with an assist.

“When your best player is unselfish, it’s tends to rub off,” Hoiberg said of Royce White. “We’ve gotten better as the season has gone on in that area, but it all starts with Royce because he facilitates our offense so much.”

Ball movement is the key in getting good looks at the basket because the Cyclones don’t possess a drive-and-dish point guard like last year (when Diante Garrett led the Big 12 in assists).

“We’re getting great open looks,” Hoiberg said. “If we continue to play that way, I think we’ll have a chance to win (any of the remaining games).”

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Hoiberg’s NBA career exposed him to several kinds of teams and it helped him build chemistry with his Cyclones

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Fred Hoiberg has been asked if the success of his second Cyclone team has been surprising. He said “no” and noted that he liked the team’s potential.

The question keeps coming up because of the unique composition of the team with so many newcomers, including five transfers. People wondered how quickly the group would gel.

Hoiberg’s playing experience in the NBA exposed him to several types of teams and prepared him for developing a good chemistry with this year’s Cyclones.

“Indiana was as professional of a team (as it could be),” Hoiberg said. “Guys came to work and every single day was a clinic.”

“Chicago was a very young team with a lot of potential,” Hoiberg said. “I didn’t think it was the right mindset and it’s tough with that many young guys.”

“At Minnesota, there were some real personalities,” Hoiberg said. “But, when it came to go, we were pretty darn good and everybody was on the same page”

Hoiberg’s NBA career was helpful in getting this year’s Cyclones on the same page.

“Having been through three different scenarios – two of them very successful and one, to be blunt, terrible (the Bulls were 83-245 over four years) – you try to pass on (info).” Hoiberg said.

Thankfully, it looks like the 2012 Cyclones are following the path of the Pacers and Timberwolves.

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Cyclones sweep Sooners but both games were a different variety than the first meeting

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The Cyclones swept the Sooners Saturday in Hilton Coliseum.

Both the women’s and men’s basketball teams picked up wins, but both games were different than the first match-ups this year in Norman.

Bill Fennelly’s team opened Big 12 play at OU on Jan. 4 and loss by 29 points.

“It was really the first time all year when a lot of people contributed,” Fennelly said.

Lauren Mansfield netted 22 points (making six three-pointers) and nearly everyone else made a play to fuel the reversal vs. the Sooners.

Fred Hoiberg’s team won at Oklahoma on Feb. 4 by making 15 three-pointers. Saturday’s win was keyed by defense. Andrew Fitzgerald, who scored a career-best 27 in Norman, got two in Ames. Scott Pledger, a 17-point scorer, made 2-11 shots.

“Melvin (Ejim) and (Chris) Babb, on the defensive end, were awesome in guarding their actions,” Hoiberg said of the Cyclones, who guarded Fitzgerald and Pledger. “They set the tone defensively.”

Making adjustments is what coaches do. The results against the Sooners indicate that both Fennelly and Hoiberg are pushing the right buttons.

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Cyclones leading the Big 12 in both three-point shooting and defending the 3

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Iowa State is shooting a higher percentage from the three-point line (.382) than anyone in the Big 12. The Cyclones have also attempted more 3’s than anyone in the conference (league games only).

Considering that Coach Fred Hoiberg hoisted 941 three-pointers in his NBA career, it’s not surprising the Cyclones favor that approach.

What you may not know is that Iowa State also defends the three-point shot better (.304) than anyone in the conference.

Three schools in Big 12 history (Kansas ’08-09; Texas ’05-06; and Oklahoma ’02-03) led the league in both three-point shooting and three-point shooting defense. Those three teams also registered a 39-9 mark in conference games.

The Cyclones have been the Big 12 pacesetter in three-point shooting only once previously (2000-01). That team was 11th in defending the three pointer.

Iowa State has held its Big 12 opponent to a poorer percentage than their season average eight times this year. That is a good trend to maintain.

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You probably didn’t know that Cyclones’ defensive improvement (14.7 ppg) is second-best in Big 12 history

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So much of the pre-season dialogue about the 2011-12 Cyclone men’s basketball team centered on the transfers becoming eligible and who would play point guard.

The other topic Coach Fred Hoiberg addressed – but no one really paid attention to – was the need to get better on defense.

In Hoiberg’s first season as coach, the Cyclones were a surprising third in the Big 12 in scoring offense (72.2) but last in defense (80.8). Iowa State was just the seventh school in league history to allow more than 80 points per game. Those seven teams were 50 games below .500 (a 31-81 record).

Iowa State has shaved 14.7 points off its per-game defensive average (conference games only) in year two for Hoiberg. Not coincidentally, the team is currently 8-5 in Big 12 play.

That dramatic turn-around has been underplayed. The improvement in defensive scoring average (from one season to the next) is the second-best in Big 12 history.

Texas allowed an all-time league worst 83.6 ppg in 1997-98 playing the up-tempo game favored by Tom Penders. The Longhorns were 6-10.

A year later, Rick Barnes took the reins of the program and UT allowed a league-low 60.3 points per game on the way to winning the Big 12 championship. The 23.3-point improvement is the best in Big 12 history.

The current Cyclones likely won’t set any records for defense this season, but the nearly 15-point improvement has been an overlooked foundation for the team’s success.

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