Iowa State's Chris Babb (AP)
But Wednesday night proved that Iowa State shouldn't be ignored as a dark horse, either.
In their league opener, second-year coach Fred Hoiberg's club consistently held a talented-yet-young Texas squad at arm's length in a 77-71 triumph.
The victory improved Iowa State to 11-3 overall and ran its current win streak to six games. It also made a statement in helping establish the Cyclones as a legitimate force to be aware of in the Big 12.
Coming into this season, ISU and its wave of eligible transfers were expected to take a step forward, with the effort being headlined by former McDonald's All-American forward Royce White, whose career at Minnesota crashed before it ever took off.
But Wednesday's win showed that White doesn't need to be on his A-game for the Cyclones to be dangerous against strong competition.
Despite not getting a bucket from the 6-foot-8 forward until the final minutes of the first half, ISU headed into the break with a 44-34. They hit nine — yes, nine — 3-pointers in the game's first 20 minutes, including four from Penn State transfer Chris Babb.
Texas responded with a 10-0 run out of the half to tie it up and put the Cyclones on the ropes. Instead of folding, Iowa State responded with a 16-3 spurt of its own.
"That was one of the best things about the game, holding them when they were on a run," said White, who finished with 14 points and six rebounds. "That's the biggest sign of our growth."
It's impressive growth, too, as you never know what kind of chemistry a team headlined mostly by transfers from other programs will have. With that make-up, ISU has thrived.
White (13.1 ppg, 8.7 rpg, 3.8 apg) is proving to be as valuable to his team as any individual player in the league, while Babb (10.4 ppg, 4.7 rpg) and Michigan State transfer Chris Allen (12.6 ppg, 2.9 apg) are providing a wealth of perimeter punch. They've meshed well with established vets such as Scott Christopherson and Melvin Ejim in giving Hoiberg a well-rounded, deep rotation.
Losses at Drake, at Michigan and at home to Northern Iowa were hardly embarrassing in the non-conference season. Beating Texas — who is very young but still wildly talented this season — looks good, but ISU has a couple of golden opportunities coming up to put itself firmly in the Big 12 race in the early stages.
After a trip this weekend to face struggling Texas A&M, the Cyclones host No. 7 Missouri next Wednesday, then travel to take on No. 14 Kansas next Saturday. They'll get two shots at each of them along with Baylor and K-State, and a handful of quality wins could get Iowa State in the NCAA tournament at-large discussion in the near future, too.
Aside from the talent and maturity Iowa State has shown this year, it will also benefit moving forward from a strong, underrated home court advantage at Hilton Coliseum. Despite the school still being on winter break, 12,248 fans packed the place to provide an intimidating atmosphere for the Longhorns on Wednesday, and over the years, when ISU has been strong, it's been a brutal place for Big 12 foes to go into and get wins.
Can they do the same on the road against elite competition? No one knows that just yet, but it's worth paying attention to see if they can.
Follow Ryan Greene on Twitter: @ryanmgreene
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