While Iowa State had plenty of returning players from its NCAA tournament team from last season, it's the new addition that has pushed the Cyclones to an elite level as they head into their final tune-up before the start of Big 12 play.
DeAndre Kane looks to keep No. 13 Iowa State unbeaten Tuesday night when it hosts Northern Illinois.
The Cyclones (11-0) are one of eight unbeaten teams remaining in Division I, successfully building on their third-round appearances in each of the last two NCAA tournaments.
This season, though, Kane - a fifth-year transfer from Marshall who is eligible only for 2013-14 - has been the hub of Fred Hoiberg's team as Iowa State attempts to further its best start in school history and potentially reach the regional semifinals for the first time since 2000.
Kane had 23 points on Christmas night when Iowa State rallied from a sluggish first half in which it scored 27 points to beat Boise State 70-66 in the finals of the Diamond Head Classic. Kane, one of only three players in Division I averaging at least 14 points, seven rebounds and five assists, went 4 for 6 from 3-point range after having made just 5 of 20 entering the game.
''Whenever you can have a guy like that can take some weight off your shoulders and perform tremendously in big games, that's huge for us,'' sophomore forward Georges Niang said. ''In the championship game in Hawaii, he willed us to win. He wasn't going to lose."
At 6-foot-4, Kane provides size mismatches Hoiberg can exploit on both ends of the floor. He has the ability to post up smaller opposing point guards, and Kane has the defensive versatility to guard wing players and grab rebounds - his 7.5 per game are third behind Dustin Hogue (10.3) and Melvin Ejim (8.8).
''He's fast. He's crafty. He's quick. He's got great size for a point guard, and he can play off the ball as well. But the biggest thing with DeAndre is you can put him in spots to use his playmaking skills if you space the floor properly,'' said Hoiberg of Kane, whose 5.5 assists per game have helped Iowa State rank fourth nationally in that category at 18.5, third in assist-to-turnover ratio (1.77-to-1) and seventh in scoring (87.2).
Iowa State has averaged 91.0 points in six wins at Hilton Coliseum, including two over ranked teams, and has averaged 21.0 assists while shooting 39.1 percent from 3-point range and 49.3 percent overall.
Northern Illinois (5-5) is trying to wrap up a four-game road swing with three consecutive wins and avoid bookend losses to ranked teams on this trip. The Huskies, who started their trek by getting routed 80-54 by then-No. 22 Massachusetts on Dec. 14, bounced back by defeating Loyola of Chicago 55-49 and emerging with a 71-64 win over Cal Riverside on Dec. 22.
Freshman guard Dontel Highsmith went 9 for 11 and finished with a season-high 27 points - two more than his previous three games combined. Highsmith is shooting 54.0 percent but has been uncommonly comfortable outside DeKalb - he's averaged 15.0 points on 64.7 percent shooting in Northern Illinois' four road games.
The Huskies have shot 38.7 percent on the road while averaging 59.5 points.
Highsmith and Darrell Bowie share the team lead with 9.6 points per game.
Northern Illinois is 2-29 all-time against ranked opponents, with the last win coming over No. 19 Oral Roberts on Feb. 3, 1973.