Blum: Cyclone Rewind, Hilton South Re-Awakens

With the first Big 12 Tournament of the decade approaching next week, it is as good of time of any to reflect on the previous decade and just how much of a wild ride it was, personified by March runs in Kansas City. In March 2010, Greg McDermott coached a less than memorable 82-75 loss to Texas on a Wednesday night at the Sprint Center. It was Iowa State’s (and McDermott’s) fifth straight opening-round loss in KC. Hilton South was all but a memory. Craig Brackins announced he was departing for the NBA following the game and Dominique Buckley and Justin Hamilton announced their intentions to transfer. It would ultimately be McDermott’s final game coaching the Cyclones.

Fred Hoiberg entered the following year and finally won a game in KC in 2013, it was Iowa State’s first victory in the Big 12 Tournament in eight years. Iowa State’s program was on the rise and droves of Cyclone fans marked their calendars once again for those three days in KC, planning to stay for a while. It set the stage for a Hilton South resurgence in 2014 that has carried on until the present day. To capture the feeling, through the beauty of YouTube, I went back and watched the Iowa State-Baylor Big 12 title game from 2014. It proved to be a very enjoyable experience in this Cyclone Rewind.

0:30 – “You are looking live at the Sprint Center in Kansas City, one of the meccas of College Basketball,” bellows Brent Musburger as we see a prime-time Kansas City illuminated by the vibrant Power & Light district in the helicopter shot. Brent and Fran Fraschilla (looking like a kid on Christmas) come on screen with the easily distinguishable “CYCLONE POWER” chants from the partisan Cyclone fans in the background. Goosebumps even six years removed.  

This was an 8 pm tip on a Saturday night which was a critical portion to the story. Because it had been 14 years since Iowa State’s last appearance in a title game, thousands of Cyclone fans caravanned down from Iowa that day. The atmosphere in the Power & Light and in the Sprint Center was electric. The Sprint Center holds almost 20,000 people and well over 19,000 of them were in Cardinal and Gold. The anticipation was off the charts and the drinks in P&L were flowing. I don’t remember a more “lubed up” Cyclone crowd.

1:10 – Fraschilla lets us know that this final was indicative of the year in the Big 12. Iowa State was actually the four seed and Baylor the seven seed, despite both spending significant time in the top 10 that year. Iowa State had to grind out a 91-85 win over KSU in the quarterfinals, before dispatching a Joel Embiid-less Kansas 94-83 in the semis. Baylor cruised through three games defeating 10-seed TCU 76-68, two-seed Oklahoma 78-73 and three-seed Texas 86-69. Some questions rose about Baylor’s ability to string four wins in a row in four days. Nobody had won four games in four days in the Big 12 tournament and nobody from the state of Texas had ever won the Big 12 tournament.

1:41 – Fraschilla: “The last one in Ames please turn the lights off.” Musburger chuckles like he just won a three-team parlay. Those two were the best. For what it’s worth, Iowa State is a slight 2.5 point favorite tonight.

7:00 – After extensive intros, we go to the sideline and Holly Rowe, who informs of sophomore Georges Niang’s cut above his right eye the previous night. Niang had five stitches and we see shots of the Cyclone pep band and fans wearing Niang-like band-aids above their right eyes. Niang said following the injury the night prior, “There goes my modeling career.”

8:21 – Your three officials tonight, John “Hollywood” Higgins, Tom Eades and Mark Whitehead. An A+ on the Blum scale. Fun story about Higgins, a couple of years ago, he got wind of my Twitter fascination with him. I was sitting court-side broadcasting Iowa State’s game in a Thanksgiving tournament in Florida when he walks over and says, “So you’re the guy on Twitter..” I was speechless. Eades would become a less-than-popular figure the next several years in Cyclone country, he actually tore his Achilles back in 2017 and hasn’t worked an NCAA tourney since then. Whitehead is now retired and the coordinator of officials for the SEC.

12:14 – Bad start for Iowa State. Brady Heslip buries back-to-back threes and the Cyclones trail 8-0 four minutes in. The Baylor amoeba zone giving the Cyclones trouble. Heslip, surprisingly, never played a minute in the NBA despite being one of the best shooters in the world. This past December he retired from basketball and is now pursuing an MBA degree in his native Canada.

19:00 – Iowa State can’t buy a basket. The Cyclones start the game 0-13 from the field. This is painful. Iowa State trails 11-1 at the 12-minute mark.

20:00 – Sophomore Naz Long finally breaks the seal with a Cyclone three. Naz was second off the bench for Iowa State this season, averaging about seven points and twenty minutes. After redshirting and then playing very little as a freshman, he was thought of as a potential recruiting “miss” by the message board community. He finished with 260 threes in his career, the second-most in Cyclone history. He now has an NBA contract with the Indiana Pacers.  

26:00 – Spotlight on Baylor’s, 7-1 sophomore Isaiah Austin disrupting Iowa State’s offense as a shot-blocking presence. Austin ultimately ended the four games with a Big 12 Tournament record 18 blocks. Austin is considered the top NBA prospect on the floor. Amazingly, eight players in this game would play in the NBA and Austin wasn’t one of them. He declared for the draft following the season, but was diagnosed with a heart condition and essentially pulled his name out of the draft. He was medically cleared to play again in 2017 and is currently playing professionally in Puerto Rico.

29:00 – This is abysmal offense for Iowa State. The Cyclones trail 16-7 and have made just one field goal in the first 12 minutes. Graphic says Iowa State was fifth in the entire country in points per game and third in pace. It was the peak of Hoiball.

30:21 – An undersized, freshman Monte Morris turns the ball over as the offense continues to labor, Cyclones trailing 18-8. Fraschilla, “That’s something you don’t see very often, only his 23rd turnover the entire season.” Morris broke the NCAA assist-to-turnover ratio record that year at 4.79-to-1. He would break his own NCAA record as a senior. And perhaps not surprisingly, Morris leads the entire NBA in assist-to-turnover ratio this season as he puts together another solid year for the Denver Nuggets.

40:30 – The Cyclone offense makes back-to-back baskets as Deandre Kane buries a transition three. 24-19 Baylor. Kane had one of the most productive seasons in Iowa State history in his lone year in Ames, averaging 17 points, 7 rebounds, 6 assists on 51% shooting and 40% from three. Just an incredible year that almost didn’t happen. Kane originally verbally committed to transfer to his hometown Pitt. He had a visit scheduled to visit Ames in a last-ditch effort by the Cyclones to get him to campus but forgot his ID when he arrived at the Huntington, West Virginia airport. Thanks to a kind TSA agent and a timely google search, Kane was allowed to fly to Iowa and committed to the Cyclones on the visit.

47:00 – Ad for the Sunday NBA showcase on ABC featuring Dwight Howard and the Rockets at Lebron James’ Miami Heat. That feels like a lifetime ago.

49:00 – The Cyclone offense heating up before halftime, Niang makes two straight buckets to cut the lead to 29-27. The Cyclone fans losing their collective…marbles.

50:00 – HALFTIME, Baylor 32, Iowa State 27. After an ugly start, Cyclones played much better down the stretch. Hoiberg with Holly Rowe, “We lacked some confidence early, but got into a rhythm, hopefully, that continues and exposes that zone.” We head to the Buffalo Wild Wings Halftime report as the 19,000 Cyclone fans go to get a beer on the concourse to keep their buzz going.

1:15:00 – Cyclones a bit sluggish to open the second half and so are the officials. The Cyclone fans letting them have it after a questionable jump ball. Musburger: “These three refs are getting a lot of help.” Hell hath no fury like a Cyclone after a questionable call. 36-31 Baylor, 17 minutes left.

1:29:30 – The teams trading baskets for a five-minute stretch, Baylor holds onto a 47-41 lead with 12 minutes left. We go to Holly, who lets us know Baylor had a pre-game meal of steak fajitas for nourishment. She shows us a text message picture on her iPhone 5 of the said fajitas. I just checked and you can currently buy a used iPhone 5 on eBay for $38.82. What a bargain.

1:34:45 – With exactly 10 minutes remaining, Melvin Ejim makes his first field goal of the game. Baylor leads 49-43. Ejim was the Big 12 Player of the Year in 2014 and a second-team All-American. He joins Marcus Fizer and Jamaal Tinsley as the only Cyclones to win Big 12 POY and yet feels underappreciated generally by the Cyclone Nation. He is currently playing at the top professional level in Spain as well as for the Canadian National Team.  

1:36:30 – Here comes Hilton South. Six straight points have Iowa State to within two and Sprint Center is on tilt waiting to explode. 8:40 remaining and Iowa State seeking its first lead.

1:38:30 – Spotlight on Scott Drew in the huddle, Fraschilla comments on the rebuilding job he’s done at Baylor. Hard to believe but Drew is now in his 17th year at Baylor. Here are the Power 5 coaches with longer tenures: Jim Boeheim, Mike Krzyzewski, Tom Izzo, Mike Brey, Leonard Hamilton. And Drew isn’t even 50 years old; not sure he ages.

1:44:00 – Long drills a corner three and the game is tied at 50 for the first time since the very beginning with just over six minutes remaining. It is getting loud. Fraschilla, “Long is going to be known as Mr. Clutch in Ames.” Fraschilla is a savant.

1:44:40 – Ejim buries a top of the arc three to give Iowa State its first lead. Sprint Center has exploded.

1:47:00 – Credit Baylor as they come roaring back despite the decided crowd advantage. Austin hits a tough runner and Heslip knocks down a three to take back the lead, 58-56 Baylor, under four minutes remaining. I’m getting nervous and I know how this ends. I can’t express enough how important it felt for Iowa State to win this game. Getting all the way back to the Big 12 final after well over a decade and losing to Baylor in front of nearly 20,000 Cyclones fans would have been a let-down of great proportions.

1:48:30 – Naz Long from 25 feet! Bottoms! What a big-time shot, that guy was nails. 59-58 Iowa State, 3:42 left. Musburger, “Down the stretch they come!” …this is the best.

1:53:11 – Ejim cashes another top of the arc three. Iowa State up four, under three minutes left. The Big 12 POY coming to play when it matters. The place is rocking.

2:00:20 – Musburger, “If we can give an award to the sixth man, it would be this crowd.” So true, the crowd would not let Iowa State lose this night, one of the top atmospheres for a Cyclone game I’ve been a part of and re-watching cements that feeling. Iowa State 66, Baylor 60. 1:17 remaining.

2:01:40 – Niang throws up a running one-hander over the 7-1 Austin that banks in, the Cyclones get a stop and the party is on. ESPN cuts to a shot of the trophy being etched with Iowa State on it. I-S-U reverberates through the arena. Madness. Goosebumps.

2:05:00 – The clock hits zero. Final: Iowa State 74, Baylor 65. Nobody wants to leave the Sprint Center. The Cyclones were back.

Iowa State won its first Big 12 Tournament Championship since 2000. Kane the Most Outstanding Player.

The party would continue into the wee hours in Kansas City. I vividly remember Chris Williams and I wrapping up our CycloneFanatic work and heading over to P&L to meet my then fiancé (now wife) and his wife at the PBR Country Bar. It was wall-to-wall Cyclones, literally thousands of happy, inebriated Cyclones. Many, many beverages were had. It just so happened that this was also the St. Patrick’s Day festivities in KC and the locals were very upset that the Cardinal and Gold was interrupting their green shenanigans. It was an epic celebration, Iowa State had ascended back to the top of the Big 12. This was a brand new experience for many Cyclones and we were going to enjoy it appropriately. It was one of the best nights of my time being a Cyclone. I doubt I was alone.

Baylor was awarded a six-seed in that year’s NCAA Tournament and rolled through Nebraska and Creighton before falling in the Sweet 16 to Wisconsin. Scott Drew has made four NCAA tournaments since and his Bears are in position to be a No. 1 seed in this year’s tournament. Baylor (and every other school from Texas) has still not won a Big 12 Tournament. No team has won four games in four days either.

Iowa State would be awarded the three-seed in the East region. The Cyclones were one of the trendiest picks in the country to make the Final Four. They rolled through the first game against North Carolina Central, but the win was overshadowed by the news Niang had broken his foot. Iowa State rallied the troops and defeated North Carolina two days later to reach its first Sweet 16 since 2000. Ultimately, UCONN was too much and ended Iowa State’s season in New York City, defeating the Cyclones 81-76. UCONN went on to win the National Championship. It’s one of the great “what-if” seasons in the history of Iowa State. Fred Hoiberg and all the players/staff from the era firmly believe they were good enough to get to the Final Four. Alas, such is life as a Cyclone.

Kansas City has remained a haven for Iowa State. The Cyclones would win the Big 12 Tournament the next year (2015) as well as 2017 and 2019. Iowa State’s four conference tournament titles in six years tie for the most of any power five program over that time. A remarkable decade indeed.

2020 presents a new decade and new challenges for the Cyclone program facing an uphill climb. Who knows what lies ahead.

But that night (and early morning) in Kansas City will live on as Iowa State’s re-arrival. It also is a good reminder for all of us: Hilton South and the passion for Cyclone Basketball never truly go away.

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