By LUKE MEREDITH, AP Sports Writer
AMES, Iowa (AP) _ Iowa State coach Fred Hoiberg appears to be exceptional at everything except dancing, and he’s put together a roster full of big personalities who play fast and typically come through in the clutch.
The Cyclones’ fan base has found it easy to pull for this year’s team.
If Iowa State keeps winning, the rest of the nation might soon follow suit.
Hoiberg’s endearingly awkward postgame dance moves– which became an Internet sensation after he was caught on camera in a joyous Iowa State locker room Sunday– also perfectly encapsulated the fun the Cyclones are having these days.
Iowa State set a school record with nearly 11,500 season tickets sold this season and turned the Big 12 title game in Kansas City earlier this month into a virtual home game.
Cyclones supporters should also be out in solid numbers Friday in New York when third-seeded Iowa State (28-7) faces UConn (28-8) in its first Sweet Sixteen appearance in 14 years.
“Our players have really bonded with our fan base. They really seem to relate to them for whatever reason. You’ve got guys from not only all over the nation, but a couple of Canadian kids, different countries. But they’re great kids, and I think people see that,” Hoiberg said. “They’re great in the community. I think people relate well to that, especially central Iowa.”
None of the players with significant roles for the Cyclones have come from anywhere near Ames. But what the Cyclones share is a passion for the game and deep respect for Hoiberg, the former Iowa State star whose vision lured them all to a small college town tucked into seemingly endless tracts of farm land.
The best example might be Pittsburgh native DeAndre Kane, who has blossomed in Ames after a contentious split with Marshall in the offseason.
Kane, whose All-Big 12 season was highlighted by a game-winning drive in Sunday’s win over North Carolina, has found redemption and a sense of community in just one season at Iowa State.
“Nobody is ever in a bad mood. We just love hanging around each other,” Kane said. “The support has been great all year, and we love playing for these people. They deserve championships.”
Kane and the Cyclones also play an exciting brand of basketball.
Sophomore forward Georges Niang, a wise-cracking kid from the Boston area, has endeared himself to fans with a charismatic personality and a game that’s part point guard and part center.
Forward Dustin Hogue’s leg-flailing enthusiasm for rebounding and dunks has made the Yonkers, N.Y., native a big hit in Ames.
Canadian Naz Long is beloved for his ability to hit clutch 3s.
Monte Morris, a freshman from Flint, Mich., has made a strong first impression because of his remarkable poise.
Then there’s senior Melvin Ejim, the Big 12 Player of the Year and an academic All-American from Toronto.
Ejim has been a rare constant in a program defined by change, and his willingness to embrace a new team dynamic each season has been crucial in the success of Hoiberg’s transfer-heavy system.
According to Iowa State student Joe Kukulski, a co-chairman for the student fan group Cyclone Alley, the fact that this team has made a concerted effort to bond with the community out in public and on social media has only added to its popularity.
“They’re very down to earth guys, just like Hoiberg,” Kukulski said. “They’re not afraid to be themselves.”
The fans haven’t been afraid to show their appreciation for this team, either.
The students organized a mass flop to heckle Oklahoma State rival Marcus Smart, and those who traveled to Kansas City put Band-Aids over their eyes en masse to support Niang after a gruesome head injury against Kansas in the Big 12 semifinals.
It was all in good fun, though _ which the Cyclones are having a lot of lately.
“I think they’re a happy group of guys. They’ve got smiles on their faces,” said former Iowa State All-American Gary Thompson, who has maintained close ties with both Hoiberg and the program. “They’re enjoying playing the game, and I think Fred has made the team that way with the way he coaches.”
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