By Wendell Barnhouse | firstname.lastname@example.org
With two more victories, Iowa State will make history by earning the school's first Final Four trip. Those victories will need to be earned in a historic venue.
The East Regional semifinals and final are being played at Madison Square Garden in New York. Being one of 12 teams still alive for the national championship is an attention getter but so is playing in the brightest of spotlights.
During the team's practice Thursday, Iowa State coach Fred Hoiberg huddled his team and said: "See those bright lights up there? This is what we played for all year."
"The Garden is like no other," said Hoiberg, who played in the Garden during his days as an NBA player. "When the announcer comes on and says 'Welcome to Madison Square Garden, the World's Most Famous Arena.' … It's just a really cool atmosphere to play basketball in."
This weekend marks the first time the Garden will host NCAA tournament games since 1974 and the first time ever for the building's current incarnation; it has been built and rebuilt four times.
"A lot of greats have played at the Garden," Iowa State freshman Monte Morris said. "It was always my dream to play there."
No. 3 seed Iowa State will take on No. 7 seed Connecticut Friday. The Huskies' campus is only about two hours away and they figure to have a strong edge in fan support. Plus, UConn used to play the Big East Tournament there. This will be the Huskies' 112th game in the Garden.
"When we go to the Garden, we take care of business," Connecticut junior Ryan Boatright said.
The fans and the arena are two distractions Iowa State must ignore.
"That's what we have to talk about these next few days," Hoiberg said, "to get that out of the way so when we tip off on Friday it's all about business, all about taking care of the game."
Iowa State will be playing its second game without Georges Niang. The versatile 6-7 sophomore forward is the team's third-leading scorer. With just one day to prepare for North Carolina after Niang suffered a broken foot, the Cyclones were able to adjust. Hoiberg and his staff have had five days to study Connecticut and prepare.
"It's definitely still going to be an adjustment," senior Melvin Ejim said, "but guys stepped up. Guys know exactly what they're going to do and we have a team who has shown before like when I got hurt that we have the ability to adjust and ability to play without a guy and still do well.
"I think Sunday was a great example of how we can play. We can definitely still get betterbut I think we'll be OK and I think guys have really stepped up."
Huskies second-year coach Kevin Ollie, who like Hoiberg is coaching at his alma mater, is impressed with Iowa State.
"They're a very high level team," Ollie told Sirius XM radio Tuesday, "Melvin Ejim, DeAndre Kane, Dustin Hogue, I could go right on down the list. I know they're missing Niang, a vital part of their offense with his facilitating ability, but they come out guns blazing. And Fred, if he sees a mismatch, he's going to keep going to it and going to it. That's his NBA background."
East Regional semifinal
6:25 p.m. Friday, Madison Square Garden, TBS.
No. 3 Iowa State vs. No. 7 Connecticut
How the Cyclones got here: Iowa State won the Big 12 Conference's automatic bid. The Cyclones defeated No. 14 North Carolina Central, 93-75, in the second round and No. 6 North Carolina, 85-83, in the third round.
How the Huskies got here: Connecticut earned an at-large bid from the America East Conference. The Huskies defeated No. 10 St. Joseph's, 89-81 in overtime, in the second round and No. 2 seed Villanova, 77-65, in the third round.
Iowa State update: The Cyclones have advanced to the Sweet 16 for the fourth time in school history. … Iowa State defeated Connecticut, then the defending national champions, in the second round of the 2012 NCAA Tournament. … Iowa State is 10-2 as the higher seeded team in the NCAA Tournament. … The Cyclones are 1-2 all-time at Madison Square Garden, most recently falling to Rutgers (84-81, OT) in the semifinals of the 2004 NIT Tournament. … Iowa State leads the Big 12 and is fifth nationally in scoring at 83.2 points per game. … The Cyclones averaged 89 points in their two NCAA victories, more than any team that reached the Sweet 16. … In the last five games, Iowa State sophomore guard Naz Long has made 12-of-22 3-point tries, including 5-of-5 in the last five minutes of those games.
Connecticut update: The Huskies' Shabazz Napier was named the American Athletic Conference player of the year. He lead UConn in points, rebounds and assists. He has scored a total of 49 points in two NCAA games. … This is the 17th time UConn has advanced to the Sweet 16 and it's the seventh time in 13 years. … The Huskies have advanced to the Elite Eight in their past four trips to the Sweet 16 (2004, 2006, 2009 and 2011). … UConn's all-time record in Madison Square Garden is 59-52. … Connecticut is 34-8 with three national championships in its last 12 NCAA Tournament appearances. … Huskies coach Kevin Ollie has been friends with Iowa State coach Fred Hoiberg for over 20 years since they were in Arizona together on a recruiting visit.
What's next: The winner of Iowa State-Connecticut advances to Sunday's regional final and will face the winner of Virginia-Michigan State.