Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Children of the Corn

By Jean Neuberger

The heartland is tearing up the hoops circuit as of late.

Wichita State hasn't lost since last year's Final Four. Doug McDermott ... I mean, Creighton is steamrolling their way through the Big East. Even Nebraska is catching fire as of late, winning three of their last four in the hotly-contested Big Ten.

And then, there's the newest hotbed of hoops: Iowa.

Barring massive catastrophe, Iowa and Iowa State will make the NCAA tournament. Both teams are solid. Both could be serious dark horses to go deep in March. Both are becoming the talk of the state.

Somewhere, the Iowa Nice Guy is smiling.

Iowa (17-5) is a tough, gritty team. Fran McCaffery's squad is deep, physical and resilient, which makes them a very tough out. The Hawkeye attack is led by Roy Devyn Marble, a 6-6 guard who is a fantastic three-point shooter and leads the team in scoring, averaging just over 16 points a game. Aaron White, a 6-9 forward, has really worked on his shot from last year and it's shown. White is shooting a phenomenal 61 percent from the field this season. The hidden catalyst though might be Mike Gesell. Gesell is the team leader in assists, averaging 3.6 assists a game, but more importantly, has shown immediate maturity in his game from last season.

The Hawkeyes are sitting in third in the Big Ten, yet watching them, it's easy to believe that they still haven't played their best basketball yet, so the opportunity is still there to sneak up and challenge Michigan.

Oh, yeah. About Michigan. The Wolverines have been road warriors all season, yet they, nor Iowa, could walk into Hilton Coliseum in Ames and take down the Cyclones.

Iowa State (16-4) is sitting in the middle of the Big 12, following a midseason slump. That "slump" was a series of games against Top 25 competition and the best of the Big 12. Their chances of creating havoc this March? Unchanged. This team has yet to match its peak.

Fred Hoiberg's squad has lost to Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas, so obviously there's no bad losses on the resume. The Cyclones avenged their earlier loss to the Sooners this past weekend and get a chance to do the same against Texas in Ames. The Cyclones have weapons galore. Melvin Ejam is peaking, leading the team in scoring in his senior season and drawing immediate All-Conference attention. Georges Niang continues to be stellar in big games, especially in Saturday's win over the Sooners (that last foul called on him was a real flaky one, as well). The nice addition from last year's squad has been 6-4 guard DeAndre Kane, a transfer who is averaging 16 points a game.

Iowa State's reputation for being nearly impossible to beat at home is well documented. However, Hoiberg has done a good job making his team mentally tougher. The Cyclones have some great road wins against BYU and Boise State and, should they go into Stillwater and beat Oklahoma State on the road, that would certainly attest to a team that's capable of big things in March. Iowa State was mere seconds from sending Ohio State out early last season. There's no reason to believe Iowa State won't be a Sweet 16 team this year, with a great chance of going further.

The heartland is heating up. And while cities like Wichita and Omaha are ablaze with basketball fury, the whole state of Iowa, deservedly so, can start getting primed for March.

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