KANSAS CITY, Mo. — As Fred Hoiberg drifted through the chaos and noise on the Sprint Center floor, shaking every hand and hugging every family member, there appeared a perceptible line of perspiration down the back of his dress shirt. Of all the things to defy your eyes Saturday, this was perhaps the most remarkable: The reposeful coach of the most unshakable team in the country does, in fact, sweat. It did not seem like a sure thing.
Once more, the Iowa State Cyclones were dead. Good and buried again, down 17 points to Kansas. By the end, they were waving Big 12 tournament championship placards as the band played “Sweet Caroline,” and it was incredibly but basically accurate to say they knew it all along. A 70-66 triumph and a second straight conference tournament title, all of it lifted from the ash heap. Five straight games now with double-digit deficits, and five straight wins. Out of the void comes another inexorable, alligator-blooded attack of the ’Clones.
“These last couple days have prepared us for everything,” Iowa State guard Naz Long said. “To be down double-digits three straight games is unheard of. To win all of them in a row is just something that prepares you for whatever comes at you, in any game.”
To be clear, Iowa State would prefer not to tiptoe along the abyss all the way to Indianapolis. The Final Four is the goal. Routinely skirting disaster to get there is not.
But never has that next step seemed so plausible for the contender Hoiberg rebuilt in his hometown, given the impossible calm demonstrated across three nights in Kansas City. The Cyclones already have talent commensurate with hopes of a multi-weekend NCAA tournament run. Now they believe there is no amount of basketball logic they can’t mock, and they have some handy reference points when the next catastrophe presents itself.
“Well,” Hoiberg said, “I think we’re capable of anything.”
This can be interpreted in a couple ways. Iowa State’s deficits totaled 75 points across those last five games. It averaged 48.4 points in the second halves of those games to extricate itself. On Saturday in particular, it was 51.6% shooting and 47 points that wiped out the 17-point deficit it faced just 26 seconds after intermission. For the last five minutes or so, Kansas coach Bill Self resorted to playing zone. That is somewhere between the locust plague and boils in the apocalypse indicators, and it underscored how incomprehensible the Cyclones’ comeback was.
These aren’t terrific odds to keep playing. “We’re not trying to do it,” point guard Monte Morris noted. But Iowa State’s stoicism is undeniable, and there’s no consider-the-competition qualifier to it: The Cyclones pulled this off against Kansas, the regular season champion, a team that might land on the two-seed line Sunday evening. So they can do it against just about anyone if they must.
After all, when forward Georges Niang gathered his team before the second half and told them that they’d been there before, he wasn’t spitting empty platitudes. He was talking about last night. “I feel like we’re built for this,” Niang said. “When our name gets called, we answer the bell. I’m not going to say that’s who we are, but if that’s our emergency button and that’s what we have to do, then we’re going to do it.”
All of it flows from Hoiberg, whose in-game fits of rage amount to moving one hand from his hip to the top of his head. It’s not that he doesn’t panic; he doesn’t really even move. As Iowa State players cut down the nets a few feet away Saturday evening, Carol Hoiberg considered the question of whether her husband ever loses his cool, about anything. She passed the query to one of her twin sons, Charlie, who shook his head.
Never? Dad comes home to find, say, a mess, and he never gets mad about it?
“He’d get kind of mad,” Charlie said.
And so it goes with Hoiberg’s other children, on the Iowa State roster. They create another fine mess. Then they clean it up, with a shrug.
“If you’re around that,” Carol said, “you channel that.”
[daily_cut.college basketball]As refreshing a basketball approach as this is, it is also completely practical. Hoiberg isn’t wired to be a screamer or a sideline tyrant anyway, but why risk adding to whatever angst your team is battling by going on a minor temper tantrum?
“You don’t have a coach yelling at you every time you make a mistake, when we get down, just yelling and making things even tougher,” guard Bryce Dejean-Jones said. “He makes things easier.”
Now the best league in the country delivers its teams into the NCAA tournament bracket in pursuit of some validation. No Big 12 teams reached the Elite Eight a year ago, and only Iowa State and Baylor advanced to the Sweet 16. Without a representative among the last eight schools alive, at least? Then all of this has been an entertaining show played out over a couple months, signifying very little.
But here comes Iowa State, the ultimate entertainer, flying in the face of disbelief. It is a selfless, shot-making team with decent size, boasting one of the 10 most efficient attacks in the nation and maybe just enough defense to get by. That is a viable formula against most teams. Whether it will be sustainable against everyone, including the behemoth out of Lexington, Ky., is another matter. But at that point, maybe it’s just a question of what you consider to be possible.
While streamers fell upon them Saturday, the dead risen once more, the Cyclones had their answer to that: Damn near anything.