WALTHAM, Mass. — Before DeAndre Kane’s clutch layup, before North Carolina’s botched final possession, before Iowa State survived with a controversial 85-83 win in the NCAA tournament round of 32 on Sunday, ISU alums everywhere nervously watched from the edge of their seats.
All except one.
Chris Babb was the picture of calm — or at least he claimed he was — watching the No. 3 seed Cyclones take down the No. 6 seed Tar Heels. Babb, who signed a multi-year contract with the Boston Celtics on Friday, said he never doubted his former teammates.
“I was pretty sure they were going to pull it out,” the rookie guard said. “That team plays with a lot of confidence.”
Babb has a unique viewpoint, being the first transfer coach Fred Hoiberg took in rebuilding the program four years ago. Royce White and Kane are higher-profile transfers to star under Hoiberg in Ames, Iowa, but Babb helped lay the groundwork for three straight NCAA appearances. When Babb arrived for his official visit, following two seasons at Penn State, Hoiberg would not let the 6-foot-5 guard leave until he signed.
“He’s a convincing guy,” Babb said, laughing, at Celtics practice on Monday. “He had a vision for where he wanted to take the program.”
Babb, who originally joined the Celtics on a 10-day contract, now has bragging rights over a few of his teammates. Only Jerryd Bayless (Arizona), Rajon Rondo (Kentucky) and Chris Johnson (Dayton) still have alma maters active in the bracket. In a first for him as an NBA player, Babb was enveloped by reporters before practice.
Some players completely lose touch with their schools after they depart. Brandon Bass, for instance, when asked about a big LSU loss in SEC play last season, responded that he rarely watches his Tigers anymore. But Babb, just a year removed from Ames, maintains an intricate knowledge of the Cyclones. Although he did not play with Kane, who immediately qualified as a transfer this season after graduating from Marshall, Babb is familiar with guard Naz Long and forward Melvin Ejim, who Babb said “transformed” in four years.
Not every player who has starred for Iowa State in the last three years started as a blue-chip recruit — or even started at Iowa State at all. Yet be they White with his anxiety disorder or Kane with his mercurial reputation, players other coaches might have shied away from have thrived under Hoiberg.
“I think he knows how to handle guys like that,” Babb said. “He’s not one of those dictator head coaches where it’s his way or the highway. He changes his plans based on the players that he has. He’s not afraid to give guys a second chance. He loves transfers who have the ability of getting better. I don’t think that has failed him yet.”
It hasn’t failed Hoiberg in March. In Ames, they just hope it succeeds two more times, for a trip to the Final Four, a place the Cyclones haven’t been since 1944. Babb, for one, is confident that drought is about to end.
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