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Cyclones come together via Eustachy's molding

Coach's recruiting success from around the nation is a testament to Iowa State's attraction.


© St. Petersburg Times, published March 25, 2000

AUBURN HILLS, Mich. -- He's from trendy California. Larry Eustachy (you-STAY-she) coaches basketball at rural Iowa State University. Seems to love it. He's thriving with the Cyclones. Even if home-state hogs, silos, cows, tractors and wheat fields are not Larry's game.

With a Sweet 16 demolition of UCLA, the upstarts from Ames have a 32-4 record. Need a win tonight against Michigan State to make the Final Four. Eustachy, relying on imported parts, has assembled the hottest mowdown machine this side of John Deere.

Marcus Fizer, the No. 1 cog, is from Michigan via Louisiana. Jamaal Tinsley brings playground point-guard wizardry from New York. Michael Nurse's skills were honed in upstate New Jersey. Kantrail Horton came from Georgia. Stevie Johnson grew up in Mississippi.

Ames, middle America melting pot.

"It's not a difficult sell," Eustachy said. "Our starters, all African-Americans, come mostly from tough neighborhoods. Iowa State quickly strikes them as being so nice, so safe, so friendly, with lots of pretty girls running around campus.

"We offer big-time college hoops in a town where trust and honesty haven't gone out of style. Fizer, Nurse, Tinsley, Johnson and Horton know just about everybody on campus. Ames embraces them. We live where you can still pump gas before paying."

I-State won the Big 12, the school's first basketball championship since 1945 -- during the concluding days of World War II -- when the conference was known as the Big Six.

In 1944 the Cyclones made their only Final Four by winning just one tournament game, against Pepperdine, when March wasn't so mad and the NCAA Tournament began with eight teams instead of 64. Utah eliminated Iowa State that year, then handled Dartmouth in an overtime final.

Ames then, Ames now

"Being such outsiders, coming to Ames can mean a period of adjustment," said Nurse, a 6-foot-1 guard with a silky jump shot and a big-grin sense of humor. "My lesson was harsher than most. Out of high school, my grades weren't good enough for any Division I program. I went to a junior college in the Bronx. Never heard of Iowa State, much less Ames.

"Shortly after arriving there, I got arrested for peeing in the street. Back home in New Jersey, public urination is considered more of a necessity than a crime. It stunned me, getting 'cuffed and jailed. Being fined. Suspended from our team for two weeks. I learned. I adapted."

Eustachy invests few recruiting hours on Des Moines, Cedar Rapids or Amana. Five new phenoms are signed for next season, two apiece from Minnesota and Indiana, plus a kid from the Bronx.

Larry can coach. He can sell. But there's one thing Eustachy can't force-feed himself. He loathes flying. Avoids airplanes except in long-range emergencies. Auburn Hills, Mich., for the Midwest Regional was a 950-mile drive.

"I'm far more comfortable on land," he said. "No, when we played in Hawaii, I couldn't drive. I didn't swim. I flew. Didn't enjoy it. Recruiting often forces me to fly. Too bad."

Upon becoming Iowa State's basketball salesman, moving up from Utah State, the 44-year-old Eustachy got encouragement from Arizona coach Lute Olson. "Before going to Tucson, he had lots of success at the University of Iowa," said the onetime bench warmer from Citrus (Calif.) Community College. "Lute told me to never undersell the state. Iowa has so many positives. Our players come in with big eyes but are immediately and genuinely embraced."

Nurse talked about that.

"Iowa has no major pro sports teams," said the senior from Teaneck, N.J. "We're like their pros. We do hear too much about our biggest rival, Iowa, but athletes at Iowa State are given attention like me, Kantrail, Marcus, Stevie and Jamaal never knew back home."

Fizer is the Clydesdale among Iowa State's horses. Powerful at 6-8, 265 pounds, with splendid shooting skills, the senior from Arcadia, La., has rare ball-handling ability for a player so massive.

So why Iowa State?

Tim Floyd was coaching the Cyclones in 1996 when Marcus was a high school senior. That was before Michael Jordan retired, before the Chicago Bulls disintegrated, before Phil Jackson fled. Two years ahead of the Ames fellow getting hired to orchestrate an NBA dynasty gone sour.

Fizer came from Inkster, Mich., a suburb of Detroit. His family was destitute. At 14, Marcus was shipped to Louisiana to live with guardians Robert and Sheila Frazier. She was a caretaker at Baptist Retirement Center, a connection that became vital for Iowa State basketball.

A patient at the facility was Ruth Hudson, mother of Beverly Floyd, Tim's wife. Bingo! Fizer met the Floyds. He was headed for Ames. "Marcus isn't married, but he is a family man," Nurse said. "Solid guy."

Fizer has lived with Ansysha Ticer through his Iowa State years. They have two children. "NBA money is coming, but March Madness is now," Nurse said. "Marcus will do fine on all fronts. He's earned it."

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