KANSAS CITY, Mo. — The thing Bill Fennelly remembers most from his team’s first Big 12 Tournament title — a 3-0 run through the bracket in 2000 — has nothing to do with any of the games played at Municipal Auditorium in Kansas City. It actually has nothing to do directly with the program he has led for 25 years as of this season.
No, the thing Fennelly remembers most is that the Iowa State men’s team accomplished the same feat the next day a short five-minute drive away at Kemper Arena.
Two arenas, one city. Iowa State reigned supreme atop the Big 12.
Next March, the Big 12 women’s basketball tournament returns to Municipal Auditorium — the arena that has hosted more men’s Final Fours (nine) than any other in the country — for the first time since 2012.
“Just a lot of great memories here. This is a very, very special building,” Fennelly said on Tuesday during the Big 12’s women’s basketball tip-off event. “It’s got a lot of history with the NABC and the old Big 8, NAIA tournament days. I think, again, to be in a venue where the people care about basketball, the city cares about it and whatever residual benefit we get from the men’s tournament, we’ll take it. That’s the way I see it.”
There is no other school that benefits more from the tournament returning to Kansas City than Iowa State. This is Hilton South, after all.
Now, the magic that has lived inside the Sprint Center — the world-class arena four blocks to the east of Municipal Auditorium — in four of the last six months of March has an opportunity to move right up the street.
“I think if we’re good enough and do what our guys have done in this tournament, it will be a great advantage,” Fennelly said. “They’re here. They want to watch basketball. They want to have a good time. You walk from the Sprint district and there’s a lot of establishments on the way over here. Grab a couple of cold ones and come in and watch us play. I think you’ve got to be good enough to get to that point, but there’s no question: it’s Hilton South for a reason.”
Let me paint a hypothetical.
A Saturday night pep rally in the Power & Light a few hours after the Iowa State women clinch a spot in Sunday’s tournament final against Baylor and immediately before the Cyclone men take on Kansas for an automatic berth in the NCAA Tournament. Two programs looking to complete the third tournament sweep (Oklahoma in 2002 is the other) by one school in league history, and the first to do it twice.
There would not be enough Busch Light in the entire state of Missouri let alone the Power & Light.
“We’re super excited. They call it Hilton South for a reason,” Iowa State junior guard Madi Wise said. “Living in Ames, just three and a half hours away, it’s going to be really exciting for us. Then the boys being right down the road at the same time, it’s going to be awesome. A lot of fans, our fans travel really well so we’re super excited.”
That is obviously the dream, but the reality is Fennelly’s team has an uphill climb to return to the Big 12 Tournament final for the second straight year. Unfortunately, a couple of folks named Bridget Carleton, Alexa Middleton and Meredith Burkhall are not walking through the door to lead this year’s edition of the Cyclones.
And that, obviously, disregards the work Steve Prohm, who will face the media at the Sprint Center on Wednesday, has to do in order to get his Cyclones back in position to win a second-straight title in Kansas City.
With that said, the men already know what Kansas City means in the historical context of Iowa State basketball. They have seen and felt it.
Four of the players on Fennelly’s 2019-20 roster, including star sophomore guard Ashley Joens, were not even born when Iowa State pulled the tournament double in 2000. Almost all of them had not even started kindergarten when the Cyclone women won their second-straight tournament the next season. Most of them were in middle school when the women’s tournament left the city.
“Sometimes, it is ancient history. I mean, it was before some of these kids were born,” Fennelly said. “What I have told them is, ‘You think Hilton’s fun? Just wait until you come down here with the men and at that time of year.’ They’ve heard it, but I think they’re going to have to experience it rather than just listen to what we have to say about it.”
Two arenas, one city. Iowa State reigns supreme atop the Big 12.
It was a reality once almost two decades ago. Now, it is a dream of possibility.
Man, that would be one helluva party.