The No. 7 seed and No. 10 seed matchups in the NCAA Tournament are always instant classics, and this one between Iowa State and Michigan State on Monday night will be no different.
Preview: Stars Nia Clouden, Ashley Joens clash in 1st round matchup between Iowa State and MSU
Joens, a junior from Iowa City, Iowa, had led the Cyclones to a 16-10 record this season by averaging 23.6 points and 9.2 rebounds per game. Her 23.6 points per game is the ninth highest in the nation, but her hustle makes her special according to Michigan State Head Coach Suzy Merchant.
“Ashley Joens is an All-American, she's I think the ninth leading score in the country, and I've never seen a kid play with more heart, soul and guts with that kind of talent,” Merchant said. “Her body must feel awful after every game she plays, and when your best players is taking three to four charges, she's getting hit left and right, getting double-teamed, pushed down and diving on the floor for loose balls. I've never seen a kid play with that kind of aggression and heart.”
The Cyclones have a solid team around their star Joens that plays incredibly well on the defensive end of the floor.
This team, according to Merchant, is one that easily could be seeded higher and nobody would bat an eye.
"I think they're better than a seven seed, personally,” Merchant said. “When I watched them play, they’re very talented. ... They'll short closeout kids that can't shoot, and they'll get up into kids and like Nia Clouden when she drives I promise you, she's going to have three people trying to take a charge in front of her.”
Merchant said that the Cyclones can shoot, defend and do everything well at a very high level.
“They're a really good basketball team that doesn't make a lot of mistakes,” she said.
However, the Spartans will look to counter that with Clouden, who looked like the Clouden of old in the Big Ten Tournament as she averaged 24 points per game in the tourney after failing to reach double-digit points in her final three regular-season games.
Michigan State guard Janai Crooms will be playing in her first-ever NCAA tournament this year and is excited to be able to have this experience alongside the one she calls "Goat."
"I don't call her Nia, I call her Goat,” Crooms said. “Before I came here, I knew what type of player she was. Just playing alongside her is just really amazing because you know I never really had a teammate like her that can do so much. I like playing with like just get her the ball, do what you got to do and get my assists.”
This will be Clouden’s second NCAA Tournament after defeating Central Michigan in the first round and losing to Notre Dame in the second round in 2019.
This time though, Clouden is looking to make a name for herself.
“I'm really excited,” Clouden said. “Just to get an opportunity to play in the tournament to be able to win a championship. I'm really excited about that for the most part, trying to win games, survive and advance with my teammates. It’s a great stage to make a name for yourself, so I’m hoping me and my teammates will be able to do that.”
Alongside Clouden, the Spartans could be short-handed as they were toward the end of the Big Ten Tournament.
With Tory Ozment suffering an Achilles strain, Julia Ayrault with a concussion and Mardrekia Cook dealing with injuries at the power forward position, the Spartans have a much smaller bench than they are used to even if they are able to play.
“Everything's day to day for both of them (Ayrault and Ozment),” Merchant said. “My feeling is if we get them, I don't know how effective they will be if we even have them.”
The Spartans will likely have to turn to Moira Joiner and Kendall Bostic at the power forward spot, which was effective against Iowa. Joiner drew a tough defensive assignment on Iowa’s Caitlin Clark.
Albeit she largely succeeded while Bostic scored 13, her second-highest scoring output of the season.
While stars shine the brightest in March, the play of the role players on offense will likely determine who has to pack their bags and who will survive and advance.
MSU and Iowa State will tip off at 6 p.m. on ESPN.