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AMES — Jameel McKay controlled the remote as he and his teammates watched.
The long-armed 6-9 Iowa State big man hosted a game viewing of the Cyclones first-round NCAA Tournament opponent, Iona’s, Metro Athletic Athletic Conference Tournament title win over league front-runner Monmouth last week.
The verdict on the upstart No. 13 seed Gaels, whom the four-seed Cyclones face at 1 p.m. Thursday (TBS) in a Denver-based Midwest Regional matchup?
“We know that they’ve got (guard A.J.) English,” McKay said. “He can score with the best of them and they play sort of similar to us. They’re going to play uptempo.”
English averages 22.4 points and provides problems with his length (6-4). And while ISU star Georges Niang’s known him for a long time through AAU encounters and playing alongside him at last summer’s Adidas Nations camp, McKay’s familiar with another key Gael: Jordan Washington.
The 6-8 Washington, like McKay, played for Indian Hills Community College. They crossed paths at camps and open gyms, but never shared the court together in games.
“He’s good,” McKay said of Washington, who averages 13.8 points and 6.2 rebounds in just 18.4 minutes per game. “He’s been playing really hard.”
Same goes for all if Iona’s team, which likely would have been playing in the NIT without the upset of Monmouth. That may make the Gaels feel like they’re playing with nothing to lose, which invites the inevitable Disney fairy tale references. It’s certainly prodded several hoops pundits to label them “dangerous” and to put ISU on “upset alert.”
Maybe so. Maybe not. The Cyclones enter the tournament with something to prove — and being doubted by a handful of “experts” (most notably, polarizing Dan Dakich of ESPN) is probably a good thing.
“I think we got a good draw,” said ISU point guard Monté Morris, who hopes to be at least 70-80 percent of full strength with his injured right shoulder. “We’ve just got to go out there and handle business and we’ll see where it goes from there.”
Where it would go next would obviously be five-seed Purdue or 12-seed Arkansas Little-Rock, which is also a trendy upset pick.
McKay watched the burly Boilermakers lose to Michigan State in Sunday’s Big Ten Tournament title game and one thing impressed him most.
“It’s crazy, I was just watching Purdue (Sunday) and thinking, ‘Man, those dudes are huge,” McKay said. “Literally, like right before we came here, I’m like, ‘Whoever plays them is going against some huge dudes.’ But we can’t look (ahead). We tried that last year. Right now our opponent is Iona.”
MORE ON MONTE’S SHOULDER
ISU coach Steve Prohm, while fully expecting Morris to play Thursday, hinted that he may deploy All-American George Niang as a point-forward against the Gaels. It’s uncertain how rapidly Morris’s strained rotator cuff can heal, but it’s clear he’ll be considerably below full strength.
“It’s not going to be 100 percent, but by the time we play we’re just trying to get it to a tolerable amount of pain,” Morris said.
PROHM’S BEEN ON BOTH SIDES
While many coaches and some analysts groused about Big Dance omissions, Prohm could relate. Last season, his Murray State team saw loss to Belmont in the Ohio Valley Conference Tournament render a flawless run to a regular season league title moot. The Racers trudged into the NIT, but felt they had an NCAA Tournament-worthy resume. Such is life at the mid-major level.
“After the (selection) show was over we were going to meet up at the arena,” Prohm said of last year’s disappointment. “We’d either get in over there and celebrate and have pizza or watch the NIT show. So obviously this side is a whole lot better.”
CATCH YOUR BREATH
Ames rises less than 1,000 feet above sea level. Denver ranges from 5,100 to 5,700 feet above sea level — hence it’s “Mile High City” moniker. So the air will be thinner, thus the lungs will be more heavily taxed until both ISU and Iona acclimatize to the altitude increase. Prom’s plan: Get there as early on Tuesday as possible so bodies can become used to the conditions. “We’ll get them adjusted,” Prohm said. “These guys should be adjusted and ready to go.”