Relentless Iowa State topples Kansas with sights set on Big 12 crown
AMES, Iowa – If this is the year, if this is the season the rest of the Big 12 finally mule-kicks Kansas off the pedestal, there will need to be several more nights like this Saturday. And "this," at psychotic Hilton Coliseum, was absurd. It was a steamy building filled with noise -- so much noise Iowa State coach Fred Hoiberg said his ears actually hurt. This was a crowd of 14,384 including a Tin Man, four Teletubbies, the Blues Brothers, and a guy in an inflatable ballerina sumo suit, every last one of them ratcheted up for a 40-minute war howl.
This was an 86-81 win for No. 11 Cyclones, but it took that oppressive environment and a damn-near ideal performance to put the No. 9 Jayhawks down.
The fault lines in Lawrence are there for everyone to see. And it still may require every piece of everything the rest of the Big 12 has to prevent Kansas’ 10 straight regular-season titles, won or shared, from turning into 11.
"It’s a start," Iowa State forward Georges Niang said, and that’s where the proclamations should end for now.
The Big 12 is the best conference in the country and essentially amounts to 10 teams thrown into a wind turbine for two months. There’s no sense in declaring anything to be inevitable in mid-January. There’s nothing certain about who or what will get spit out at the end. But every team must now realize that Kansas is there for the taking, at least more than it has been lately, with prized freshmen who cannot yet be relied upon and some mental shortcomings that rear up in the most frustrating way.
That is a truth. It’s invigorating for everyone but the Jayhawks, although a little urgency wouldn’t hurt them, either.
And still: Kansas now has one Big 12 loss. At 3-1, it is a half-game behind first-place Kansas State. If no one will concede the league to the Jayhawks, everyone will concede that they are the ones to chase.
"To win 10 straight is an amazing accomplishment," Hoiberg said. "In order for us to compete with them for a league championship, we had to win this game. We absolutely had to. It was important. It was an important step to protect your home court against a team that everybody is trying to knock off."
That will be as difficult to do, if Kansas finds its answers. With the talent on that roster, you surmise that the epiphanies can come in a flash, and thus create a formidable problem for the league when they do. But the awakenings have to come. Or else there will be more infuriating nights like this one, when it is painfully evident how much growing up is left to do.
On Saturday, Kansas got out-Kansas’d. Iowa State had no intention of attempting to forge half-court offense against the Jayhawks’ length, so it ran. It ran relentlessly, after misses and even makes. And it absolutely chewed up a Kansas transition defense that was lazy and disorganized, when it wasn’t altogether non-existent.
In one sequence, Iowa State guard Naz Long dribbled almost the entire length of the floor with two Jayhawks jogging behind him. Another barely glanced at Long as he crossed half-court. Another flung an arm at him near the top of the key. No one protected the rim. So Long finished for two of the Cyclones’ 21 official transition points, a number which Kansas coach Bill Self thought shortchanged the hosts by two or three buckets.
The horrible transition defense was deflating. It also was a sign of a team unable to summon the energy needed for a specific game plan, or unable to process that game plan, or both.
"Whenever we had a chance to inch back in it, our inability to get back or sort or talk led to easy basketballs they didn’t have to earn," Self said. "It was basically giving them points."
That smacks of immaturity. As did Kansas’ reaction to the din at Hilton, in Self’s estimation. How would he characterize his team’s reaction to the crowd?
"Terrible," Self said.
Freshman Kelly Oubre’s recent ascendance, 12.6 points per game in last five, hit a snag with a 5-of-15 shooting night. Meanwhile, freshman Cliff Alexander’s two-minute second half -- he played just 14 overall -- incited enough hand-wringing among Jayhawks faithful to last another month or so. But Alexander’s apparent disinterest in both perimeter defense and sprinting back as Iowa State’s big men ran the floor, the eruptive Jameel McKay especially, allowed Self to easily explain the limited workload.
“I didn’t think his motor was very good,” the Kansas coach said of Alexander.
In the Big 12, anything is possible. That includes the Jayhawks figuring all this out by Monday, when Oklahoma visits. It also includes the chance that they won’t figure it out enough for an 11th straight championship. Every other team sees the vulnerabilities. It remains to be seen if they can take advantage of them.
Managing that Saturday meant Iowa State had to do exactly what it wanted to do, and not a fraction less. Six players in double figures, 50.8 percent shooting overall, nine three-pointers, exposing Kansas on the break, getting a favorable offensive foul call in the final minute with the Jayhawks rallying; remove any of those elements from the equation and the result might have changed. Relative to Kansas, that is tantalizing and unnerving. Unseating the reigning champions can be done, but it everything must come together just so.
"It’s big-time," Iowa State guard Monte Morris said after an 11-point, 10-assist night. "With us winning that first one here, throwing that first punch, we got more to play for. We know we can beat them."
Crazed as the crowd was for most of Saturday evening, they maintained their senses at the very end. The fan base craved this moment deeply. Kansas had won the last two games at Hilton, as well as five of its last six in the series and 18 of 20 overall. Yet the horn blew and no one stormed the floor. They sang and celebrated in place as the players passed by as they headed into a tunnel and to the locker room. They stayed there as Hoiberg departed a few moments later, the ate-the-canary grin on his face impossible to miss.
As much as ever, anything can happen in the Big 12. That may mean Kansas looks up at a league rival in the end, for the first time in a decade. But until that end comes, one way or another, there are nine other teams in the conference looking to catch up.
“It’s very satisfying,” Iowa State’s Long said of Saturday’s win. “It really is. But with that being said, we’re on to the next.”