AMES, Iowa (AP) - Iowa State is more than ready for the postseason after playing 17 games in the nation’s most grueling conference.
But the Cyclones could still use a little momentum before heading off to the Big 12 tournament and beyond.
No. 16 Iowa State (22-7, 10-7 Big 12) has dropped its last two games, road losses to Kansas State and Baylor, after going 7-1 in February.
A win on Saturday over surging Oklahoma State (20-10, 8-9), winners of four in a row, would give the Cyclones a welcome boost of confidence ahead of the most important weeks of the season.
“Teams lose, man. You hit that wall. But like I’ve always said, you’ve got to break through that wall and get back after it,” senior point guard DeAndre Kane said.
The Cyclones are likely to earn the No. 4 or No. 5 seed for the conference tournament regardless of what happens Saturday, a rematch of a triple-overtime thriller against the Cowboys that Iowa State won 98-97 a month ago.
Neither team wants a repeat of that first meeting with the conference tournament on deck. But if the Cyclones hope to make a long run in Kansas City, they know they’ll need more out of senior Melvin Ejim and sophomore Georges Niang than they got against Baylor.
Ejim and Niang, who combine to average over 34 points a game, had just 10 points on 5-of-25 shooting in the 74-61 loss. Ejim simply had a rare off night, while Niang never got in rhythm after picking up two fouls in two minutes.
Oklahoma State hasn’t lost since star point guard Marcus Smart returned from a suspension. The Cowboys are hoping for an NCAA tournament bid, but a road win over Iowa State could remove any doubt.
“We’re getting them at a point in time when they’re playing great basketball,” Iowa State coach Fred Hoiberg said. “But I think the way we look at it, with the last two road games, we play at Kansas State, which hasn’t lost a home game all year in conference, then you play a hot Baylor team. Now we’re going against probably the hottest team in the Big 12 right now. Again, those are steps toward the ultimate goal, playing in the postseason and getting prepared for that.”
Ejim could also push much closer to a major personal goal, Big 12 Player of the Year, with a strong performance in the regular season finale.
Ejim leads the Big 12 in scoring at 18.4 points a game, and his 8.6 rebounds trail only Oklahoma’s Ryan Spangler. Kane, who is averaging 16.7 points, 6.7 rebounds and 5.8 assists a game, will also garner strong consideration along with West Virginia’s Juwan Staten, Kansas freshman Andrew Wiggins and even Smart.
A player of the year honor would be huge for Ejim and the program. Ejim is Hoiberg’s first four-year player, and he has helped show that Hoiberg can be as good at developing talent as he is at finding it through transfers.
“It kind of breaks the norm of people that have this idea that it’s just a transfer school,” Ejim said. “But you have guys like me that have been here for four years, guys like (Niang) and all these freshmen…it changes that stigma.”
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