KANSAS CITY, Mo. — The Big 12 tournament might as well be Iowa State‘s Final Four. Game time might as well be happy hour. And frankly, it is, judging by the economic — and social — impact Cyclones’ fans make on Kansas City hotels, bars and public transportation.
Nobody will say it out loud but for a program that has been to the Final Four only once (1944), before they even called it the Final Four), this is the closest thing there is.
If that rite of spring means bringing fans, flasks and fun in equal measure to the conference tournament, even better. On the court here, each March, the Cyclones seem to rise to another level at the Sprint Center, long ago named “Hilton South” when Iowa State is making a run.
The Cyclones winning the conference tournament again makes perfect sense. After trouncing No. 17 Kansas 78-66, they’ve won it four of the last six years. It makes further sense that, with no dominant team in the Big 12 this season, fifth-seeded Iowa State made sure it left town with a dominant performance. The Cyclones were the lowest-seeded team ever to win the 22-year Big 12 Tournament.
“We wanted it,” freshman forward George Conditt said. “There was nothing more. We wanted this game more than anything. We didn’t come this far to lose.”
Except that there were few indicators the Cyclones would come very far at all. They were coming off a last-place finish in 2017-18. They closed the regular season losing six of their last eight, finishing 9-9 in the league.
A particularly embarrassing 20-point loss two weeks ago at Texas was followed by a 15-point loss at West Virginia. Texas Tech clinched a share of the regular-season title a week ago on the Cyclones’ floor.
“When we went down to Austin and they smacked us, I felt like, man, we have to do something about this,” forward Michael Jacobson said.
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The junior transfer from Nebraska left Lincoln because of situations like this. Huskers coach Tim Miles didn’t utilize a kid with a long 6-9 body who is physical around the basket.
The season, it seemed, was slipping away. After that West Virginia loss, leading scorer Marial Shayok sprained his toe during what was termed a team “scuffle” in practice.
Coach Steve Prohm ended up sending a text to the entire team: “Hey, what do we have to do to max out these last couple of weeks of our season?” Jacobson recounted.
“I sent him a big, long text about how I wanted to be a vocal leader,” Jacobson added.
He was more than that in the three games in Kansas City. Jacobson was the force opponents couldn’t account for, combining for 29 points and 27 rebounds in three games.
And while Shayok was named the tournament’s most outstanding player, it was hard to single out a single player. These Cyclones have been at their best for years following a familiar pattern. Prohm plays up tempo and welcomes transfers the same way Fred Hoiberg did before him. Shayok came from Virginia. Starting guard Nick Weller-Babb transferred from Arkansas.
Second-leading scorer Lindell Wigginton came off the bench to score 17 against Kansas. Eighteen-year old Talen Horton-Tucker is a budding star, even though he ended with eight points. All of them came together at the right time (again) in Kansas City. Baylor, Kansas State and Kansas went down by a combined 31 points.
“I don’t what it is, but it’s a great place for us to play,” Prohm said. “We have a talented group. We had some ups and downs the last couple of weeks and kind of fell of radar a little bit. Hopefully, we got back on the radar a little bit.”
These Kansas City runs haven’t necessarily translated to NCAA success. After the previous three conference tournament titles, the Cyclones are a combined 4-3 in the NCAA Tournament.
At this moment who in Ames cares?
“I think it’s the best tournament in the country because of how each fan base represents their school and having the Cyclone fans travel with us all year long,” Shayok said. “They really showed up for us this week. Definitely something I’ll never forget.”
The postseason expectations are higher for No. 17 Kansas even with a third-place finish this season that ended a 14-year streak of conference titles. Kansas raised doubts than banners with another inconsistent performance in a season that has wandered at times.
KU’s best player, Dedric Lawson, rebounded from a horrible first half (2 of 12 shooting) but the frustration of losing to the Cyclones for the second time in three tries this season showed. In the final minute, Lawson received a technical for bouncing a ball high into the air after a foul call.
“They were better than us, make no mistake,” Kansas coach Bill Self said. “But I loved how we competed for 40 minutes. But there is a difference in competing and trying real hard.”
Meanwhile, Iowa State moves into the Big Dance as a tough out. On Feb. 4, the Cyclones were 18-5. Now 23-11, Iowa State caught fire in Kansas City. The current three-game winning streak is their first since that same date.
Iowa State won its fourth Big 12 Tournament since 2014. It had already won the hearts of their fans who — believe it or not — may have outnumbered Kansas followers. Self predicted that 70 percent of the Sprint Center, 40 miles from Lawrence, would be full of Iowa State fans. The ratio wasn’t quite that high but the Clones’ fans made their presence known.
As for Kansas …
“We didn’t give ’em enough to get excited about,” Self said.
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