AMES - Iowa State is getting reacquainted with the country's best in a big way.
The Cyclones men's basketball team returns to the NCAA tournament for the first time in seven years with a matchup with defending national champion Connecticut.
Eighth-seeded Iowa State (22-10) and the ninth-seeded Huskies (20-13) meet Thursday inside Louisville's KFC Yum! Center at approximately 8:10 p.m.
T-R PHOTO BY MARK PAWLAK
Members of the Iowa State men’s basketball team (from left) Chris Allen, head coach Fred Hoiberg, Scott Christopherson and Royce White react on Sunday at Hilton Coliseum as the Cyclones are announced during the NCAA tournament selection show. Iowa State is the No. 8-seed in the South Region and face No. 9 Connecticut on Thursday in Louisville, Ky.
"That's been kind of the goal we've been working toward all season, having our name called (Sunday)," said senior Scott Christopherson. "It was really exciting for all the players, coaches. A lot of hard work went into that, but now as competitors, we're naturally thinking about what we've got to do to win this first game."
UConn rode a transcendent performance from Kemba Walker through the Big East tournament and all the way to a national title last season and returned this year with four starters back and one of the nation's top recruiting classes coming in.
Even with Walker departing for the NBA, the Huskies opened the season ranked No. 4 in The Associated Press Top 25, but stumbled through a conference season that saw them finish with an 8-10 league mark.
Still, UConn is the reigning champs and its roster features a pair of likely high NBA draft picks in Andre Drummond and Jeremy Lamb.
"It's a great team. They've got six players returning from a national championship," said Cyclones head coach Fred Hoiberg, who himself played in three NCAA tournaments while a player at ISU. "It'll be a heck of a battle for us."
"You're playing two lottery picks," he added. "Those guys are big-time talents."
Iowa State has not made the NCAA tournament field since the 2004-05 season, a year in which UConn was the defending national champion.
The Huskies have three national titles under head coach Jim Calhoun, with two coming in a decade in which ISU has made just one tournament appearance.
"We aren't defending our championship. The most singularly important thing is to get an opportunity," Calhoun told reporters Sunday. "We had an opportunity last year and took great advantage of it."
"This is the best time of year," he added.
The Cyclones find themselves in the South region, home to the tournament's overall No. 1 seed, Kentucky, which will likely await the winner of the ISU/UConn game in the Round of 32.
Together, Kentucky and Connecticut own 10 national titles and 18 Final Four appearances.
"You just look across the regions," said ISU's Royce White, "anybody you could've drawn poses a problem in some way."
Iowa State hasn't reached a Final Four in the modern era, but it does have a player that's appeared in a pair on its roster in Chris Allen.
"Playing against a team like (UConn), you also have to be prepared for everything," said Allen, a Michigan State transfer that played in the 2008 and 2009 Final Fours. "Preparation is going to be major this week."
Iowa State learned of its fate inside Hilton Coliseum, along with over a thousand gathered Cyclones faithful.
ISU's matchup was the second revealed on the CBS Selection Show, and it drew cheers and applause, despite the daunting path the Cyclones will have to make to get out of the first weekend for the first time since 2000.
Iowa State finished its regular season on a high note with a win over then-No. 9 Baylor, but bowed out of the Big 12 tournament with a loss in its first game to Texas.
"All that blood, sweat and tears that we went through prepares you for this," Hoiberg said. "Now, it's here. It's what you play for. The regular season, it's a grind and you hope you do enough to prepare for this moment. And now here we are.
"It's a tough draw," he added, "but, hey, we're up for the challenge."