More March magic?

We all know by now that the Big Dance can be – and typically is – a full-court free-for-all.

There are no guarantees anymore. Not even in round one. Parity, for better or worse, is here to stay. While college basketball has turned into a watered down product of sorts in recent years, the balance does make its annual NCAA Tournament as exciting and unpredictable as ever.

With that being said, the true contenders tend to surface as the season progresses. By the time March rolls around, the ”it” factor becomes more and more apparent. Teams are brilliant in flashes on the court, while also displaying the kind of intangibles that ultimately lead to championships.

After capturing a Big 12 title in Kansas City over the weekend, the Iowa State Cyclones have emerged as a trendy pick to make a run to this year’s Final Four in Dallas. Head coach Fred Hoiberg’s squad drew a No. 3 seed in the East, where they could possibly face North Carolina, Villanova, Michigan State or Virginia down the road.

Not a walk in the park by any means, but every potential opponent in Iowa State’s bracket will likely be hoping for an upset after breaking down the Cyclones’ recent game film.

This ISU squad has the kind of grit and tenacity that the 2000 Elite Eight group displayed. They are wired much differently, but the tried and true traits that winners possess in March – solid guard play, NBA-level talent, hungry upperclassmen, powerful chemistry – are all there for the Cyclones.

The way Iowa State battled back against Baylor on Saturday night – rallying from a double-digit deficit after missing its first 13 shots from the field – was almost as impressive as the victory over Kansas the night before, when the Cyclones were clicking on all cylinders.

Can Hoiberg’s bunch win pretty? Check. Can they also win ugly? Check. Can they close out big games on a neutral court? ISU did it against Kansas State, the Jayhawks and the Bears. Check, check, check.

The Cyclones also hail from what many consider to be the best conference in America. A tournament-high seven teams are in the Big Dance, including ninth-ranked Iowa State, No. 10 Kansas and 20th-rated Oklahoma. Even the next tier of qualifiers – Baylor, Kansas State, Texas and Oklahoma State – feature some of the more talented players around.

All of these programs have been tested like none other during a rigorous league slate. Given the Cyclones emerged from that pack in Kansas City, their ceiling appears to be limitless along this crazy road to the Lone Star State.

Iowa State has definite concerns – the bench is short, the defense is hit-and-miss, and the shot selection can be a head-scratcher at times – but the Cyclones are no less complete than any other contender. They’ve beaten nine different NCAA qualifiers a total of 12 times, sport a 15-7 record against Top-100 RPI opponents, and rank second in the country in assist-to-turnover ratio.

Anything can and does happen during March Madness, but don’t feel uneasy about advancing Iowa State as you fill out your brackets this week. The potential is definitely there for a Texas-sized finish to what has already been a memorable postseason.

Eric Pratt is Sports Editor at The Messenger. He may be reached afternoons and evenings at 1-800-622-6613, or by e-mail at sports@messengernews.net