DES MOINES, Iowa — Iowa State's final win in nonconference play was about as dismal a victory as a team can have.
The Cyclones let an early 18-point lead dwindle to just two against one of the worst teams in the country, Mississippi Valley State on Dec. 31. They escaped with a 67-65 win, but it didn't feel like one at all.
Iowa State coach Fred Hoiberg simply couldn't believe his team would display such a lack of intensity, and he didn't wait long to air his frustrations.
"We had a couple long talks after that game, starting right after in our locker room," Hoiberg said. "We talked about, at some point and time, you have to develop a killer instinct."
Hoiberg's words have finally sunk in for the Cyclones.
Iowa State (12-3) is off to its first 2-0 start in the Big 12 in five years. The Cyclones beat Texas 77-71, then trounced preseason favorite Texas A&M 74-50 on Saturday behind 10 points, 10 assists and 18 rebounds from sophomore Royce White — just the sixth triple-double registered in a Big 12 game.
Iowa State hosts No. 9 Missouri on Wednesday night with a chance to knock off its first ranked opponent of the season.
The big question mark coming into this season was whether Iowa State could mold an impressive crop of Division I transfers into a unit that could compete for a Big 12 Conference title and an NCAA tournament berth.
The newcomers seemed to be coming together at just the right time.
White, who missed the win over Mississippi Valley State with the flu and was still so sick in College Station that he lost his lunch after coming out of the game, is becoming the kind of player teams need to win in a league as athletic and skilled as the Big 12.
White, who is 6-foot-8 and 270 pounds but possesses enough of a handle to bring the ball up the floor when needed, is 12th in the league in scoring and second in rebounding. He's given the Cyclones an inside presence, and his unique skill set has presented matchup problems in the post and beyond.
"He's like Magic Johnson. He's a point forward. He can do so many things," Missouri coach Frank Haith said. "He gets excited by getting his guys shots, but then on the flip side he can still score, and he can drive you, he can post you up. So, he's a tough guard."
Where Iowa State really stands out is from beyond the arc, where Penn State transfer Chris Babb has found his niche.
Babb drilled five 3-pointers in the win against Texas and has a team-high 40 on the season. Babb, Chris Allen and Scott Christopherson can all make 3-point shots, and when they are on the floor together, which they usually are, the Cyclones have options from everywhere on the floor.
Iowa State leads the Big 12 with nearly nine 3-pointers a game, and junior-college transfer Tyrus McGee has thrived in his role as a super sub off the bench.
"We've done a very nice job sharing the basketball, playing unselfishly and making easy basketball plays," Hoiberg said. "We've got enough guys to make shots, but we need to play easy, simple basketball."
There is, of course, a huge difference between a good week and a good season in the Big 12.
The Mississippi Valley State game wasn't the only time Iowa State seemed to skate by, and early losses at Drake and in Ames against Northern Iowa might still sting come March.
But the Big 12 is such a tough league that a strong run over the next two months could put the Cyclones in position for the NCAA tournament berth that's eluded them since 2005. That's a long ways off, obviously, but Iowa State has already knocked a pair of teams in the Longhorns and Aggies that have been pegged as Big 12 contenders.
If the Cyclones keep it up, folks might be saying the same thing about them.
"We've really responded. I'm really pleased with how our preparation has been," Hoiberg said. "Our preparation changed. We've been much better. Our attention to small details has been off the charts. We really executed our game plans against Texas and Texas A&M, and I think that's allowed us to play better."
Missouri (14-1, 1-1 Big 12)
at Iowa State (12-3, 2-0 Big 12)
WHEN: 7 p.m.
WHERE: Hilton Coliseum (14,356), Ames, Iowa
RADIO: KTGR/1580 AM, 100.5 FM; KCMQ/96.7 FM
TV: KMIZ/Channel 17