Iowa State surges into NCAA Tournament

A month ago, Iowa State looked like a team on the verge of falling out of NCAA Tournament contention.

The Cyclones have played like one of the best teams in the country ever since.

Surging Iowa State (23-10) has won nine of its last 10 games, including an 80-74 win over West Virginia on Saturday in the Big 12 Tournament title game. Only Villanova, Kentucky, UCLA and Arizona have made similar 9-1 runs among power five and Big East schools.

The fifth-seeded Cyclones face No. 12 seed Nevada (28-6) in Milwaukee on Thursday.

''We're playing well,'' second-year coach Steve Prohm said. ''If we can continue to maintain our defensive effort and the toughness that we had (Saturday), continue to share the ball, we can do good things.''

After a 67-65 loss at Texas in early February that left Iowa State at just 14-9, Prohm decided to make freshman center Solomon Young a starter.

Young hasn't exactly been a savior - but his mere presence helped Iowa State eliminate by far its most glaring weakness.

The Cyclones, stung by the loss of prized post recruit Emmanuel Malou in May, grabbed a pair of fifth-year graduate transfers for the interior in Merrill Holden and Darrell Bowie in the offseason.

Holden and Bowie have had their moments. But what Iowa State really needed was someone who could give it a big body in the post defensively and free up enough space for stars like Monte Morris, Deonte Burton and Naz Mitrou-Long to get open shots.

Young is 28 from 40 from the field since earning a starting nod, with five rebounds and 1.4 blocks per game. It's hardly a coincidence that Iowa State's recent run came once Young began to earn extended minutes - and few players in the country have played as well as Morris in the last month.

Morris, fueled in part by his exclusion from the Cousy Award list of the nation's best point guards, had 21 points, 10 rebounds and nine assists in a quarterfinal win over Oklahoma State. Morris added 17 points in the win over the Mountaineers.

Morris, who is averaging 16.3 points and 6.1 assists per game, is the biggest reason the Cyclones look so dangerous in a tournament where strong guard play is paramount. Fellow seniors Mitrou-Long (15.5 points per game) and Matt Thomas (12 ppg) also have the ability to take over games.

Burton has put aside the inconsistency that plagued him earlier this season, scoring at least 16 points in each of his last six games while shooting over 50 percent. Reserve guard Donovan Jackson has hit 45.3 percent of his 3s.

Iowa State is also among the most experienced teams still playing, with Morris, Mitrou-Long and Thomas all making their fourth trips to the NCAA Tournament.

''We're playing really well right now. Everyone has kind of bought in and is embracing their role. We're playing for each other, and if we continue to do that I think the sky is the limit,'' Thomas said.

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