Now, I do not watch a ton of Big 12 basketball but do know the Cyclones have some serious talent and are tournament veterans where as the Nevada Wolf Pack have not been to the Big Dance since 2007.
On to the questions.
1. Who are the key players that have led Iowa State this year?
It all starts with point guard Monte Morris, who is set to blow away the NCAA career record for assist-to-turnover ratio after setting the single-season record his freshman year at ISU. Morris leads the nation this season in that statistic at 5.71 heading into the tournament, even better than his 4.79 mark that first season on campus. As Morris has aged, his role on the team has changed from distributor to shouldering more of the scoring load, and this season he's averaging a career-high 16.3 points per game. There was some concern that his efficiency might drop off as he started to take more shots, but he's largely defied that expectation and has a case for being the best point guard in the entire country, despite being snubbed from the finalist list for the Bob Cousy award. Coach Prohm has loosened the reins and let Morris play with the freedom that you'd expect for a future NBA player.
After Morris, the next guy who has the most impact on Iowa State's roster is Deonte Burton. Burton is a 6-foot-4, 240 pound freak of an athlete who can jump out of the gym and murder rims on occasion. But while you might expect a bruiser-type player with those measurables, Burton also possesses a good finesse game and has hit 41% of his 3-point attempts across his entire career, despite playing at the 4-spot in most of ISU's lineups. When Burton is "on," the Cyclones are close to unstoppable. I'd argue he's even more important for Nevada to bottle up than Morris, so playing loose defense on him is out of the question.
Beyond those two, ISU's senior guards Naz Mitrou-Long and Matt Thomas are primarily outside shooters at 38.5% and 44% this season from long range, respectively. Mitrou-Long, otherwise known by his nickname of "3sus of Nazareth," has the ability to get to the bucket if he's not hitting from outside, while Thomas utilizes more of a mid-range game if he gets run off the arc. If either of those two guys get loose and hit a couple threes in succession, look out.
2. What concerns you most about this Nevada team?
Nevada having 2-3 NBA-caliber players on their roster and having the ability to play loose is good and all, but that's something Iowa State deals with all the time playing in the Big 12. So I'm not as concerned about that as some of the national pundits seem to be, for whatever reason.
I think the chief concern for me is that Nevada has the potential to get hot from 3-point land. As a Cyclone fan, I know that a great shooting night can be all it takes to take down a superior opponent, as ISU has often done against teams like Kansas (the Clones got loose and went 18-34 against KU in their win at Allen Fieldhouse earlier this year). A good night shooting out of the Wolf Pack plus a cold night for Iowa State would have me sweating bullets.
There's also the off-court aspect. I don't think it'll affect them, but Steve Prohm's wife is set to give birth any day now and three of ISU's players are from Milwaukee, so being home could be a factor. If they let themselves get too loose playing in front of their friends and family, the Cyclones could turn the ball over more and give Nevada more possessions. That's a no-no against a team that's already pretty good at rebounding.
3. How can Iowa State's Steve Prohm say with a straight face and use the underdog role when they are the higher seed, ranked in the top 25, a six-point favorite and coming off of a Big 12 tournament champion?
Like I alluded to, a few national analysts (I loosely recall Seth Davis and Jay Bilas picking against us) have tabbed this game as the classic 5/12 upset even though Iowa State is better than Nevada in most statistical categories. It might only be a few people going against the Clones, but anything like that can instantly become bulletin board material for a team to use as they advance further in the tournament.
My guess is when he brings up being an underdog, it's more meant as ISU's chances against the field. They've made two Sweet Sixteens in the last three years, with the UAB upset sandwiched in-between. Since that's a negative memory and it happened to be the very first game of the tournament in 2015, that's how many people across the nation remember and judge ISU now, whether it's fair or not. Prohm and crew are going to have to do something equally as positive to loosen the UAB loss out of the grasp of the average college basketball fan's mind. With a senior-heavy roster, this is the year to do it, as next year and possibly the year after figure to be rebuilding years in Ames.
4. What do you think is a bigger factor: Iowa State's experience in the NCAA Tournament over the past five years, or Nevada being a team that just plays loose?
Tournament experience, without hesitation. ISU knows how to win games in the NCAA Tournament and they also know what the sting of defeat feels like against a lesser team (again, UAB... ugh). I don't think they're going to look past Nevada and should be comfortable playing on a neutral court, even if Nevada plays loosely.
5. What is your prediction?
I think Iowa State is playing some of their best ball of the season right now and I expect them to shoot closer to their season average from 3-point range (40.2%) than Nevada has been giving up to opponents (30.7%). I expect Nevada to get quite a few second chance opportunities on the offensive glass, but in the end, ISU will prove too balanced and play too loose for the Wolf Pack to contain, and the Cyclones will win by 8-10 points. I'll go with 83-73 if you want a specific score prediction.
6. Can you pronounce Nevada correctly, because apparently that is a thing?
Well, since the town Nevada, Iowa was founded in 1853 and Nevada the state wasn't granted statehood until 1864, the pronunciation "Neh-vay-duh" was first and is thus the correct way to say it, as opposed to "Neh-vah-duh." Be sure to have loose lips and spread the word to your fellow Neh-vay-dians!