Bear Hunting in Hilton

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*as first seen on Wide Right & Natty Lite

One of the first things I did when the clock hit triple zeros at Hilton Coliseum on Jan. 7 was text my dad to declare, “This might be the best Iowa State basketball team ever.”

I knew it was a bold proclamation. Fifteen years ago my life consisted almost entirely of Pokémon cards, fudgesicles and playing house with the girl next door. I wasn’t oblivious yet was certainly not tuned all the way in when Marcus Fizer, Jamaal Tinsley & Co. led the Cyclones on a crash course through the Big 12 at the genesis of Larry Eustachy’s far-too-brief tenure [raises glass].

Nope, I couldn’t give two ripe farts about college basketball back then. Maybe one. Not two.

But as with most guys and gals about my age who bleed cardinal and gold, if you weren’t fortunate enough to know those turn-of-the-century Cyclones all that well — you eventually came to know of them.

And what I knew for certain when the buzzer sounded after that home opener on Jan. 7 is that this group of guys — the eye-gouging thug from Marshall, Fred Hoiberg’s mini-me who can’t find his stroke, that undersized forward with the huge ass who used to play with Nerlens Noel, the JuCo transfer nobody cared about, the “glue guy” Canadian who never dunks, and others — might actually be the best Iowa State basketball team I had ever laid eyes on.

There’s no denying that night against Baylor — an 87-72 win — shaped the expectations for the remainder of the season. The Cyclones built on an already record-setting undefeated start by luring the seventh-ranked team in the country into Hilton Coliseum and punting them into the rafters. Three days prior, Iowa State had squandered a gigantic lead and eked by a mediocre Texas Tech team in Lubbock, leaving some fans to wonder if maybe that 13-game winning streak was a fluke after all — perhaps a couple lucky wins and a cupcake-ish non-conference schedule wasn’t ideal preparation for what we would eventually come to dub the best conference in college basketball.

At the time, Baylor was a month removed from a win over Kentucky and a close loss to Syracuse, remaining otherwise unblemished (however you would like to view those games now is your prerogative). Perhaps this was going to finally be a Scott Drew team that played to its full potential, using its size and athletic ability to both dominate opponents in the frontcourt and also fall back on a solid core of jumpshooters.

It was all a terrifying possibility on paper that never came to fruition, at least not on that night.

DeAndre Kane dropped a season-high 30. Baylor couldn’t exploit Doc Sadler’s patented double team. But one thing stood out above anything else…

As far as X’s and O’s, this was going to be a new kind of Fred Hoiberg basketball team.

What the Cyclones once had in Korie LuciousChris AllenChris BabbScott Christopherson and Tyrus McGee is gone, and quite frankly, it’s probably never coming back. All you heard about Iowa State basketball at the onset of Hoiberg’s coaching career was that this was going to be a team that lived and died by the three — just as he did in the NBA. The Cyclones were going to be a team hereby constructed in their coach’s image — able to spread defenses thin and shoot the lights out from the parking lot.

But the narrative changed in 2013-14, and that change was most recognizable against a team it probably shouldn’t have been.

All of a sudden, Iowa State was top-10 nationally in two-point field goal efficiency. Twenty-four total two-point buckets to the Bears’ 17 was the line that night. Paint points. And we’re talking about a Baylor team that has height advantage over 343 college basketball teams in the country.

THREE HUNDRED FORTY-THREE — and this Cyclone team didn’t flinch. The first top-10 matchup in the history of Hilton Coliseum and this Cyclone team didn’t flinch. A unblemished record to protect from the seventh-ranked team in the country and this Cyclone team didn’t flinch.

That night was the birth of everything we didn’t know about Iowa State basketball. Who was Monté Morris going to be exactly? A career-high 13 points (which still stands) and four assists in 27 reserve minutes became a pretty successful audition for the eventual starting point guard job. How was this group of guys going to stymie teams that were terrifying mismatches on paper like Baylor? Ball movement — 23 assists. What kind of workload should we realistically expect from an undersized junior college transfer in Dustin Hogue? How about 36 minutes — seven more than any BU player and one shy of DeAndre Kane’s game-high 37.

Beating Baylor was the dawn of a new state of mind for the 2013-14 Cyclone basketball season. You can rebut with the fact that they crapped the bed their next three times out on the floor after that — totally fine, I understand.

But up to that point, all we knew was that Iowa State was a BYU prayer (PUN TOTALLY INTENDED AFTER I WENT BACK AND READ IT) and a coupleMike Gesell free throws away from just another ordinary start. Throw in a loss to Northern Iowa for shits and giggles (though that game was quite literally the least funny thing I experienced all year).

Frankly, we didn’t know who this team really was on Jan. 6.

But on Jan. 7, I think everyone did. And we never forgot.

One thought on “Bear Hunting in Hilton

  1. You knew who they were, you were just afraid that if the thought lasted a moment too long in your mind, it might…be…bad…luck. Trust in the Mayor of BB town, we were watching him make history about the time the training wheels were coming off your first bike.

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