AMES — The laughs were merely a diversion.
No matter how many times Iowa State forward Jameel McKay tried to lightheartedly steer media attention from a possible Saturday matchup with 2015 NCAA Tournament Cyclone slayer UAB in the Emerald Coast Classic, the anticipated end game remained squarely in view.
“We’ve got to beat Virginia Tech,” the 6-9 double-digit rebounder initially said of Friday’s impediment to a possible rematch with the Blazers (who play Illinois the same day).
Then, with mild goading, McKay relented — chuckling as freely and purposefully as he runs the floor.
UAB stunned the No. 3 seed Cyclones in the first day of last season’s Big Dance.
That’s the team now fourth-ranked ISU yearns to play over the Thanksgiving weekend slate of games in Niceville, Fla., right?
“Everybody knows who we want,” admitted McKay, who hoarded 17 rebounds in Monday’s 83-63 win over Chattanooga. “But we’ve just got to beat Virginia Tech.”
Clearly the “Win the Day” maxim new coach Steve Prohm has instilled in the Cyclones (3-0) serves them well. Friday’s matchup with the Buzz Williams-led Hokies (3-1) tips at 6 p.m. and will be broadcast on the CBS Sports Network.
“Of course we’re going to try to take care of business against Virginia Tech and if God bless us, we play UAB Saturday," McKay said. "And that’s that.”
Prohm vigorously promotes humility, but he also encourages swagger when it’s warranted.
ISU’s player are learning to tightrope amid those countervailing forces while aiming toward a March that’s less about madness than an even-measured sense of purpose.
“The last time we looked ahead, UAB snubbed us,” All-American forward Georges Niang said. “So we’ll just take Tech first and then we know who we want, but we’ll handle Tech first.”
We know who we want.
Almost a catch-phrase, no?
It’s what they ultimately want that matters most, though.
It’s why looking ahead is strictly forbidden; it’s why boasting and coasting are no-nos of the highest order.
“I’ll watch UAB after the (Tech) game if we play them,” said Prohm, whose Cyclones rank 20th national in adjusted defensive efficiency according to KenPom.com. “I understand the situation with the kids, but my focus is just Virginia Tech.”
On the Hokies, and on defense, where his team is clearly showing improvement.
ISU’s offensive prowess is a given. The nation’s two-time record-setting point guard in terms of assist-to-turnover ratio, Monté Morris, runs the show. Niang’s a well-documented mismatch horror show. Now a healthier Naz Mitrou-Long — who nailed 6 of 9 3-pointers in Monday’s 83-63 silencing of upstart Chattanooga — is buzzing around both ends and McKay, well, he’s aiming higher than 17 boards.
“Why not get 20?” McKay said. “And I can count four of them (Monday) that I should have got that I probably let me teammates get.”
That speaks to the fierce, yet beneficial in-fighting that led to several pushing and shoving-based practice spats before the season started.
All out of love. Your friend/teammate/minutes rival is there to push you — or be pushed — to a loftier ledge.
“I think right now we’re clicking,” said McKay, whose averaging 12.7 boards per game. “I think our mindset is different. I think we want it more this year. I think with that .. and us focusing on defense and scoring the ball the way we do, everything is going good for us right now. But we’ve just got to stay level-headed and not have any slip ups and I don’t think we will anytime soon.”
That’s why who they want isn’t willingly — or publicly — dwelled upon.
What the want is the ultimate prize. Petty acts of revenge, or short-term celebrations don’t get them there.
It’s “Win the Day” all the way, or bust. One humble step at a time.
““Humility,” Prohm reiterated. “That’s just (what) I’ve always preached with any team, is just humility. You’ve got to handle success the right way. … If we do play UAB, then it’s just about that game and that moment, being focused.”