Pack lands 12 seed, will play Iowa State in Milwaukee
On Saturday, Nevada clinched its first NCAA Tournament berth since 2007 with a win over Colorado State in the Mountain West title game.
On Sunday, Nevada learned who it will dance with. The Wolf Pack (28-6) will open with Big 12 tournament champ Iowa State (23-10) on Thursday in Milwaukee at the BMO Bradley Center – home of the NBA’s Milwaukee Bucks.
The Wolf Pack was given a 12 seed, the Cyclones a 5 – a matchup infamous for producing upsets. In 28 of the last 32 NCAA Tournaments, at least one 12 seed has advanced to the round of 32.
Both teams enter playing their best basketball of the season. Nevada has rattled off nine-straight victories (by an average of 15 points) for the first time since the 2011-12 season while ISU has won nine of its last 10. The lone loss in that stretch came in the regular-season finale at No. 10 West Virginia, 87-76. The Cyclones avenged that loss on Saturday, topping the Mountaineers in the Big 12 title game, 80-74.
The strength of Nevada’s schedule was one of the heaviest anchors in the potential at-large hopes. St. Mary’s was the only top-50 team it played, a lopsided road loss in the opener. That was not the case for the Cyclones, who went 12-6 in Big 12 play.
Iowa State’s notable wins include Miami, Kansas State (twice), at No. 2 Kansas, No. 9 Baylor and No. 10 West Virginia.
Both teams like to run so Thursday’s matchup has the potential to feature a lot of points. Iowa State is not a particularly large team, but compensates with stellar outside shooting. The Cyclones connect from deep at a 40.2 percent clip – which ranks No. 14 in the nation. They led the Big 12 with 10 triples a game.
Leading scorer Monte Morris is the team’s biggest threat. He leads the Cyclones with 16.3 ppg and shoots 38.9 percent from deep.
Matt Thomas (84-of-191, 44 percent), Naz Mitrou-Long (94-of-244, 38.5 percent) and Deonte Burton (not that one) can also fill it up. Burton is 40-of-105 (38.1 percent) from deep.
That could play into Nevada’s hands, however. The Wolf Pack held opponents to 30.7 percent from deep this year. Only 14 teams in the nation were better at guarding the three-point line.
Rebounding was a large reason for Nevada’s late-season run and the area where it will have its largest advantage on Thursday. The Wolf Pack owns a rebounding margin of +3.9 – tops in the Mountain West and 64th in the nation. The Cylones grab 3.6 fewer rebounds than their opponent – which ranks dead last in the Big 12 and 295th (of 347) in all of college basketball.
As expected of a Big 12 tournament champion, Iowa State is extremely athletic. That’s particularly obvious on the defensive end, where it forces 14.4 turnovers a game, third most in the Big 12.
Only Utah State turned the ball over less than Nevada in the MW this year, but it goes without saying the Wolf Pack hasn’t played a team of Iowa State’s caliber.
With ISU’s athleticism, it’s unlikely coach Eric Musselman will go any deeper than Josh Hall on the bench. Cam Oliver sat much of the first half of Saturday’s MW title game with two early fouls. A similar obstacle on Thursday could be a season-ender.
The game will be played 350 miles from the Cyclones’ campus in Ames, Iowa, so a pro-Iowa State crowd is likely despite the tournament’s infatuation with the underdog.
Thursday’s winner will play the victor between No. 4 Purdue (25-7) and No. 13 Vermont (29-5) on Saturday with a spot in the Sweet 16 on the line.
Nevada has an all-time record of 4-6 in its six previous NCAA Tournament appearances. In 2006, the third of four-straight appearances, Nevada was on the wrong end of a 12-5 upset, falling to Montana.