Huskies begin title defense

Connecticut is the defending national champion, and owns two other NCAA titles. Iowa State has made one trip to the Final Four – way back in 1944.

For UConn, playing in the NCAA tournament is such a regular occurrence it may as well be on the Huskies’ schedule. The last time Iowa State made the tourney, coach Fred Hoiberg was still dropping 3-pointers in the NBA.

Connecticut has four players, maybe five, who will be playing in the NBA within a year or two. The Cyclones might lead Division I in transfers.

But if anyone thinks the Cyclones are shaking at the thought of Thursday’s second-round NCAA tournament game against Connecticut, well, think again.

“Kemba Walker’s not coming back, is he?” Scott Christopherson said with a smirk, Chris Allen giggling beside him.

“Obviously we know Connecticut is one of the most storied programs in all of college basketball. We know they’re the defending national champs. They’ve got a ton of talent,” Christopherson continued. “But we feel like we earned our way to be here, too.”

Fact is, it’s the Cyclones (22-10) who are the higher seed, a No. 8 to UConn’s No. 9. And it was the Huskies (20-13) who struggled down the stretch in the regular season, dropping nine of their last 13 going into the Big East tournament, while Iowa State was knocking off Big 12 behemoths Kansas, Baylor and Kansas State.

“We’ve been trying to talk about that a lot the last few days,” Hoiberg said. “It’s such a tough, grueling schedule. But at the same time, you understand how well prepared you’ll be once you play on the stage we’re about to play on.”

And Christopherson has a point. Walker, the Most Outstanding Player of last year’s NCAA tournament, is now in the NBA. While UConn still has two of the country’s best guards in Jeremy Lamb and Shabazz Napier, this Huskies team is very different than the one that bulldozed its way through the month of March last year.

Freshman center Andre Drummond is “maybe the biggest guy any of our players ever see,” Hoiberg said, averaging almost eight rebounds and three blocks per game. Throw 6-foot-9 “forward” Alex Oriakhi in there, and the paint may as well be the Bermuda Triangle for opposing offenses.

Oh, Drummond can score, too, averaging 10.2 points on 54 percent shooting.

“Not only is he big, he’s one of those bigs that gets up and down the floor,” Hoiberg said. “You don’t see that a lot with the guys that size. They throw him alley-oops, he beats his man to the rim. It doesn’t look like he ever gets tired, either. He poses a big problem.”

But the Cyclones will give as good as they’re going to get with Royce White.

At 6-8 and 270 pounds, White is listed as a forward. But he’s really more of a hybrid of every position on the floor. Not only does he lead Iowa State in rebounding (9.2) and blocks (0.9), he’s their top scorer (13.1 points), and also leads the Cyclones in assists (5.1) and steals (1.2). He’s in the top five in the Big 12 in both rebounding and assists.

The first time Iowa State played Oklahoma, the Sooners decided to shut down White. The plan worked – sort of, as White took just one shot and finished with four rebounds.

But he dished out seven assists, and the Cyclones won 77-70.

“He handles the ball very well,” Christopherson said. “He allows the guards to do so many different things with dribble handoffs and setting ball screens and things like that, as well as he can get to the basket and pass the ball. He’s such a willing passer that it is really hard to scout him.”

It also could make Drummond less of a threat.

White’s unselfishness has helped make the Cyclones one of the most dangerous teams from beyond the arc. They have four – count `em, four – players with 50 or more 3-pointers, and rank seventh in the country with 8.9 3s per game.

“If you put the right plays in, put the right action, if you get out in transition and run and get the shots up before the defense gets set … you’re going to create some looks,” Hoiberg said.

And yes, the Cyclones have noticed that UConn ranks 179th in the country in 3-point defense, allowing opponents to shoot 34.3 percent from beyond the arc.

“We’re not going to chuck away,” Hoiberg said. “We have to be very careful that we don’t come down and jack up quick, contested shots. That’s when we’ve struggled this year. We want to create good, open shots. If we do that, we’ll live with them.”

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