It's been easy to forget that Iowa State still has most of its season left.
Thanks to final exams, the holidays and a quirk in the Big 12 schedule that gave Iowa State a bye week right away, the Cyclones have played just once in 21 days — and that was on New Year's Day against Yale.
The Cyclones (10-3) have lost to the teams they were expected to lose to — No. 21 Cincinnati, No. 24 UNLV and Iowa on the road — while beating everyone they were supposed to beat. But Iowa State also looked sluggish at times against weaker competition like Florida-Gulf Coast, Missouri-Kansas City and Yale.
The Cyclones have gotten away with it so far. But they won't when league plays starts Wednesday night at No. 6 Kansas (12-1).
"We think we can play with any team on any night. I think we can beat any team, and I also think we can lose to any team in the league depending on how we come out and play, depending on what our mindset is," Iowa State coach Fred Hoiberg said. "I like our guys. We've got talent, there's no question about it, Now it's just about going out there and playing together."
Iowa State also played down to its nonconference competition in stretches last season before rallying to a 12-6 Big 12 finish and an NCAA tournament berth. This year's Cyclones aren't as settled as that group was by early January.
Two of Iowa State's most valuable players, senior guard Tyrus McGee and freshman forward Georges Niang, are still coming off the bench. But their role may be expanded in the coming weeks. McGee has energized his sometimes-lethargic team and scores 13.4 points per game.
Niang is third on the team in scoring and rebounding, and is second behind sophomore big man Percy Gibson in shooting percentage at 52 percent.
Both McGee and Niang were on the floor when Iowa State rallied from 11 points down to beat Yale 80-70. Hoiberg hinted that he might change his rotations, which could mean more minutes for McGee and Niang.
"We're looking at a lot of things," Hoiberg said. "I really liked that group that finished off that (Yale) game the other day. I though Georges gave us great energy. Tyrus does that every game, gives us that spark off the bench. For me, what's more important is finishing games."
Though the Cyclones have been prone to turnovers and inconsistent defense, they can score and rebound with anyone in the country.
The Cyclones are the only team in the nation to put up at least 70 points in every game this season, and they're seventh nationally at 82 points a game. Iowa State also has outrebounded all but one opponent and is sixth in the nation in rebounding margin at plus-10.8. That's why the Cyclones seem have a strong shot at finishing near the top of a watered-down Big 12.
"We all know there are things we could have done better, things that we're going to improve on. And I think we're at a good place. We've got some good tests and we've learned from our mistakes," forward Melvin Ejim said.
But if they don't, the Cyclones know they'll get beaten up in the Big 12.
"If you don't bring it, you will lose," Ejim said.
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