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Iowa State rides March Madness into game against familiar foe in South Dakota State

OMAHA, Neb. (AP) — T.J. Otzelberger was sitting around CHI Health Center on Wednesday, just before leading Iowa State onto the court for its open practice ahead of the NCAA Tournament, still marveling at the way its fan base showed out last weekend.

Buoyed by Cyclones fans filling to the rafters, they romped past then-No. 1 Houston to win the Big 12 Tournament title.

“That," Otzelberger said, “was something I'll never forget.”

Expect the same sort of home-court advantage for the No. 2 seed Cyclones this week. Instead of the 230-mile trek south of the Iowa State campus in Ames to reach Kansas City, those thousands of red- and yellow-clad fans have a mere 170 miles to drive to reach Omaha for their first-round game against No. 15 seed South Dakota State on Thursday.

The winner will play No. 7 seed Washington State or 10th-seeded Drake, which also is located just down I-80 in Des Moines.

“The passion, enthusiasm, investment our fans make every single day — it's inspiring,” said Otzelberger, who got his start as a college head coach at South Dakota State, and whose former assistant, Eric Henderson, is now leading the Jackrabbits.

“It really elevates our team to play at higher levels,” Otzelberger said. “It allows our guys to accomplish the things they've done.”

The top half of the East Region, headlined by overall No. 1 seed and defending national champion UConn, will have to wait until Friday to get their NCAA Tournament underway. But the bottom half, beginning with the matchup between the Cyclones (27-7) and the Jackrabbits (22-12), represents a unique convergence of players, coaches and, yes, fans.

Otzelberger coached under Greg McDermott, whose Creighton teams call CHI Health Center home. One of his recruits while he was with the Jackrabbits, Matt Mims, will be facing him in the starting lineup Thursday, five years after he departed. And there is Henderson, whom the Iowa State coach called “one of my best friends on earth for 20-plus years.”

Henderson has the Jackrabbits in the NCAA Tournament for the second time in three years after winning the Summit League.

“Obviously we've talked and texted a few times,” Henderson said. “Once you get the emotions out of it, we're both competitive dudes, right? We both want to win. The respect level is high, but yeah.”

As for that home-court advantage, Henderson was quick to point out the South Dakota State campus in Brookings is not a whole lot further away than Ames, and that he expects yellow- and blue-clad Jackrabbits fans to be out in force.

“This is what it's all about, right? To be able to share moments like this with our team,” Henderson said. “It doesn't get any better than this, to be frank with you. We know what Cyclone Nation does in Kansas City for the Big 12 Tournament. We will be excited for the atmosphere in the building, no doubt.”

Sixth-seeded BYU and No. 11 seed Duquesne open the quadruple-header Thursday in Omaha with the winner getting third-seeded Illinois or No. 14 seed Morehead State in the second round.

MORE TIES THAT BIND

Drake coach Darian DeVries spent 17 years on McDermott's staff at Creighton, and his son and star player, Tucker DeVries, was born in Omaha. Now, the duo hopes to lead the Bulldogs past the first round of the NCAA tourney for the first time since 1971.

“Being able to create my own memories as a player here would be pretty special,” Tucker DeVries said.

ANOTHER CHANCE

The Fighting Illini will try to turn around their NCAA Tournament fortunes after a first-round loss to Arkansas last year. They have not made it through the opening weekend since 2005, when Bruce Weber took them to the national title game.

“Last year was kind of embarrassing for me,” Illinois forward Coleman Hawkins said. “We just didn’t compete hard. It felt like some of the guys gave up. But I feel like we have a really good team this year that’s ready to face any challenge.”

WALK-ONS WORK

Duquesne is back in the NCAA Tournament for the first time in 47 years behind a coach, Keith Dambrot, who is retiring after the season and a bunch of players such as Jake DiMichele, who walked on this year and is now one of its key players.

“That's the non-science part of this business,” Dambrot said of DiMichele, who hit a big shot in the Atlantic-10 title game. “He’s a good student, so that’s how we got him. He started as a straight-A student. He’s a walk-on for now, but I wouldn’t count on for long. That guy’s good now. Yeah, like, he looks like a violin player. But he’s tough as nails, man. Certainly we have those guys that are stars. But this guy is an undervalued guy. He wins. And we have a lot of guys like that.”

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AP March Madness bracket: https://apnews.com/hub/ncaa-mens-bracket and coverage: https://apnews.com/hub/march-madness