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Basketball

BLUM: NCAA Tournament? There’s a chance.

DES MOINES — Exactly 30 days ago, Iowa State faced Appalachian State in the opening round of a November tournament in Myrtle Beach. The postseason was the last thing on everyone’s mind. The Cyclones were 0-2 and coming off a humiliating loss at Hilton Coliseum to a mediocre at best Milwaukee team. To modify the classic quote from former NFL coach Jim Mora, “NCAA Tournament? Tournament? We just want to win a game.”

Not even the most optimistic Cyclone could have envisioned what has transpired since. The Cyclones have reeled off eight wins in a row and just took care of business, winning 76-65, against a UNI team that was ranked in the top 20 of the country in the RPI. The 8-2 record is a game better than where Iowa State stood a year ago at this same juncture with a senior-laden team that eventually made it to the 2nd round of the NCAA Tournament.

And those March NCAA Tournament plans that seemed an impossibility with this group are back on the table.

A good portion of this Iowa State eight game winning streak have been against less than stellar competition, but the UNI game felt different. UNI has high profile wins against UNLV, NC State and SMU and went toe-to-toe with first ranked Villanova.

“This is one win where you look back at the end of the year that if you continue to get better and do good things you say, that was a very, very good win,” Steve Prohm said.

UNI had the game at its pace for the most of the first 25 minutes and Iowa State was stuck in the Panthers uncomfortable style, but Lindell Wigginton quickly showed he was the best player on the floor and the reason Iowa State can be hopeful for the rest of the season. Wigginton’s talent overwhelmed UNI during a four minute spurt and Iowa State never looked back.

“Lindell’s got a little dog in him. Or a puppy I should say,” Nick Weiler-Babb said with a laugh.

The pup has grown up, much like this Iowa State team. The electric Wigginton has averaged 22 points, six rebounds and four assists in the last five games, exceeding even the loftiest of hype. Wigginton was quick to defer credit. When asked what has been biggest difference since starting 0-2, Wigginton responded, “Nick.”

“He got our pace going and really helps out on the defensive end too,” Wigginton said.

The decision to move Weiler-Babb to the point position has reshaped Iowa State’s entire season. The trio of Weiler-Babb, Wigginton and Donovan Jackson gives Iowa State an element that can make it competitive with anybody. College basketball is a guard’s game and Iowa State’s three are playing as well as any group during this eight game stretch.

“Trying to defend those three guys is really difficult, especially when they’re ahead,” UNI head coach Ben Jacobson said.

Even though his shot wasn’t falling for most of the game, Weiler-Babb filled up the stat sheet once more, putting up 15 points, 9 rebounds and 4 assists in 38 minutes.

“Coming into this season, I knew I had to be a leader. This is kind of the extreme of what I thought. All I want to do is win,” Weiler-Babb said.

Iowa State has one more non-conference game remaining before league play beings, a likely win against Maryland-Eastern Shore. A win would match Iowa State’s longest winning streak since 2013 and put the Cyclones in a great position before the brutal Big 12 slate begins. All 10 conference teams are in the top 60 of the Ken Pom rankings and the supposed weak links in the conference (Oklahoma State and Iowa State) each had high level wins on Saturday.

Iowa State will likely need to go at least 8-10 in conference to be near the NCAA Tournament bubble and with the strength of the Big 12 that is a tall order.

But the conversation about this Cyclone team is completely different than a month ago. To borrow a phrase from a different Cyclone turnaround, Steve Prohm is loving the process and the process is loving him back.

“This is one of my more exciting years of coaching. We’re excited about where we’ve been able to get to right now, but we’re also excited about where we could be if we stay humble and keep working,” Prohm said.

Can Iowa State get back to a seventh straight NCAA Tournament? I’m telling you, there’s a chance.