The slogan painted on the court at the Final Four catches the eye — the four words signaling the end of the college basketball season.

"The Road Ends Here."

Those words apply for 64 other teams, of course, well before the NCAA Tournament reaches its conclusion.

They apply to players, too. 

Merrill Holden, a Lincoln High graduate who is playing his final season of college basketball at Iowa State, will play in the NCAA Tournament on Thursday night for the first time.

Raise your hand if you knew there was a kid from Lincoln playing for a five-seed that won its conference tournament championship this year.

The road will end sometime in the next few weeks for Holden. It could end Thursday. Either way, he'll enjoy the time he has left.

"I've had a lot of ups and downs personally, but this is why we play," Holden said after the Cyclones wrapped up practice Wednesday in Milwaukee. "This last month of March. I feel like there's more opportunities. We've just got to be ready — ready to play your role and win games."

It's been a long, winding road for the former Link, one that took him from his boyhood home of Chicago, to Lincoln, to Oklahoma, back to Lincoln and four different colleges after high school.

Holden was a good athlete at Lincoln High, earning Class A honorable mention all-state honors in basketball as a senior in 2012, and finishing fifth in the Class A high jump at that spring's state track meet in Omaha.

He originally moved to Nebraska from Chicago around sixth grade, then moved to Oklahoma for a few years before coming back to Lincoln and attending Lincoln High. Holden's mother and a couple of cousins still live in Lincoln, and Holden visits when he has time, usually over the summer. Holden said he stays in contact with many of the guys he played high school ball with.

"A lot of good memories," he said.

Holden committed to Morningside College coming out of high school, then transferred to Pratt (Kansas) Community College for the second semester of his freshman year. While at Pratt, he committed to Texas-Pan American, only to decommit shortly after and instead attend Louisiana Tech.

After two seasons in Ruston, Louisiana, where he went to a pair of NITs with the Bulldogs and earned a degree in general studies, Holden used his graduate transfer season to make the move to Ames. The Cyclones had lost Georges Niang, Abdel Nader and Jameel McKay to graduation, leaving plenty of room in Iowa State's frontcourt.

"I had kind of a rocky college career," Holden said. "But I learned a lot, and grew as a man and as a player. And there's plenty of basketball ahead of me."

Iowa State (23-10) is a long shot to make it all the way to the national semifinals. The Cyclones, in fact, are a trendy pick to be the annual 5-12 upset pick in a game in which they face a red-hot Nevada squad that comes in with a 28-6 record and a nine-game winning streak. It will be the last game of the first round, set for a 9 p.m. tip at the Bradley Center in Milwaukee.

On a guard-heavy team, Holden has appeared in 25 of Iowa State's 33 games, including 14 starts. He started the first nine games of the season, and made five more starts once Big 12 Conference play started. He was in the starting lineup when the Cyclones upset Kansas on Feb. 4 in Allen Fieldhouse, but played just eight minutes.

In fact, Holden hasn't played more than eight minutes in a game since Jan. 31 against West Virginia. He scored nearly half of his season total of 59 points in two of Iowa State's first three games of the season.

While a lineup change has kept Holden on the bench late in the year, it's sparked the Cyclones. Iowa State is 9-1 in its last 10 games, and avenged the only loss in that stretch by downing West Virginia for the Big 12 Conference Tournament title.

"It's crazy exciting. There's been a lot of ups and downs, but learning comes from ups and downs," Holden said. "I feel like we came together more as a group and put some things together to keep it going."

With a team-best wingspan of 7 feet, 2½ inches, Holden's main role is as a rim protector and defensive specialist. He's averaging 2.4 points and 2.0 rebounds per game on the court while working toward a master's degree in community development.

Holden hopes professional basketball of some type is in his future. He'll try and get workouts set up with professional teams after Iowa State's season ends, and once again follow down whatever road basketball takes him.

First, though, he'd like an extended stop in the madness of March.

"I've been able to enjoy it," Holden said. "It's something I've never been a part of and it's exciting. I'm just looking forward to whatever comes next and kind of getting ready to win some games and make it far."

Reach the writer at 402-473-7436 or cbasnett@journalstar.com. On Twitter @HuskerExtraCB.

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Husker basketball reporter

A Ravenna native, Chris covers the University of Nebraska men's basketball team and assists with football coverage. He spent nearly 10 years covering sports at the Kearney Hub and nearly four years at the Springfield News-Leader in Springfield, Mo.

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