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Iowa State proves Hilton Magic is real in breakthrough win over Kansas

Iowa State toppled Kansas on Saturday night to give the program the breakthrough win it deserved.

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Reese Strickland-USA TODAY Sports

By any metric, No. 9 Kansas vs. No. 11 Iowa State was considered an elite matchup. It features two of the best teams nationally, arguably the top two contenders for the Big 12 title and a name brand — Kansas — that people are going to tune in to watch.

But on a Saturday littered with other highly-rated matchups — from Duke-Louisville to Arizona-Utah to Texas-West Virginia — the quality of play on display at Hilton Coliseum is only part of the reason this game was picked by ESPN to be the center of the college basketball world for the first time in Iowa State history.

It's that phrase you've heard about, even if you watch just one Cyclone per year: Hilton Magic.

That's why ESPN's College GameDay decided to make its first trip ever to Ames, and that's why this game, rather than the matchup of both teams in Lawrence, seems to carry a little bit more cache.

"I think (GameDay) needs to go to the best atmosphere," ESPN analyst Jay Williams said. "That's what we're trying to focus our attention on. I cannot wait to feel the atmosphere in this building. I've heard so much about the magic of Hilton Coliseum."

That magic, even more than the stunning growth of the program under Fred Hoiberg, has come to define Iowa State basketball. After the Cyclones beat No. 3 Missouri in 1989, the Des Moines Register coined the term, and it stuck. And whether it's the raucous students or the late, great Johnny Orr sending blessings from the rafters, it has turned this former little brother in a small, Midwest state into a destination over the course of two decades. And it's absolutely real.

Over the past two seasons, the Cyclones are 39-2 at home. The only two losses? Both came at the hands of Kansas.


Reese Strickland-USA TODAY Sports


It's hard find the proper wording to describe the Iowa State-Kansas series. The Jayhawks aren't the Cyclones' biggest rival (that's the Iowa Hawkeyes), but Kansas might be the most hated team at ISU. Kansas probably wouldn't consider this a rivalry in the historical sense, but it's also arguably the Big 12 series that the most astute college basketball watchers have looked forward to the most (or at least, in the top two) over the past three years.

The bad blood has only grown recently. The 2013 game in Ames will, in particular, live in infamy forever. A controversial no-call on what the Big 12 admitted later was a charge helped send the game to overtime, and with the game no longer in doubt, Kansas' Elijah Johnson threw down a dunk that sent Hilton into a chorus of boos.

After the game, an Iowa State fan booster named Melvin Weatherwax angrily confronted Kansas coach Bill Self on the court and needed to be held back by police, and the night got worse, as two fans made "racial and threatening comments" on Twitter, directed toward Johnson, that necessitated an apology from the Iowa State student government.

Last year, the game in Ames was more civil, but it ended in heartbreak for the eighth-ranked Cyclones. This year, a Des Moines Register columnist predicted some combination of blood, overtimes, technicals and officiating errors.

The actions of the fans from the 2013 game don't represent the fan base, but this series is as contentious as they come in college basketball, particularly from the Iowa State side.

Some of that is anger. Kansas has turned Hilton Magic on its head over the past two years to find victory. Some of it's jealousy, as KU is clearly the class of the Big 12. But most of all, it appears to be a search for validation.

It's a validation of many things — of the play on the court, of the rise of the program and of the incredible atmosphere that you can expect inside Hilton. It's a unique phenomenon of non-urban teams in this region of the country — teams that don't get the respect of the traditional small-market powers, but still have something pretty darn special.

It's why, when asked what he knew about Hilton Magic, Williams said he was dumbfounded by the "500 or 600" tweets he got within the first MINUTE of the GameDay announcement, promising a display unlike anything he'd every experienced.

"I've seen relentless people who tweet at me constantly," Williams said.

And it's why we at SB Nation had to tweet this after some harsh responses to calling an Iowa State win a "minor upset."

This stage is what Iowa State and its fans have been begging for. It's a chance for the Cyclones faithful to show the nation what Hilton Magic is all about, and it's a chance to validate the advancement of the program, as well. This win wouldn't be an upset. It's not magical in the sense of the term. No, this would be a chance to show that KU finally has a consistent challenger to its decade-long run of absolute Big 12 dominance.

This is the game that slipped away from the Cyclones in 2014, and it was a chance to get that validating win this program needs to be on Kansas' level.


Part of why Iowa State has been so successful is that the Cyclones are actually fun to watch. Much of the discussion on GameDay centered around how visually unappealing college basketball has become, and how teams need to be forced to run the floor more.

Hoiberg — a legend in these parts — has accomplished the rare feat of mixing a winning, NBA-style offense with a college atmosphere. ESPN GameDay analyst Seth Greenberg repeated a number of times that this game would be fun because these two teams would "actually probably make shots."

"The ball goes in (for Iowa State)," Greenberg said. "There are a lot of games where the ball doesn't go in."

The game was as advertised. Hilton gets loud, and it was rocking from the beginning.

"Before the game, I couldn't even hear," Hoiberg said. "It literally hurt my ears."

In many ways, this game was typical of the Iowa State-Kansas games we've grown accustomed to seeing over the past few years. The Cyclones brought their A game, and Kansas didn't look to have the athletic advantage that it has typically had. There was a late flagrant foul, which seems necessary for this game, and the controversial call that seemed destined for conspiracy theories.

And just when it looked like Iowa State might pull away for good, Kansas made a run. Right before the late run, my Iowa State fan friend texted me ... he knew what was coming.

But this time, things were different than they had been in the prior two years. This time, Iowa State got the charge call. This time, it was Cyclone Dustin Hogue with the stunning dunk in the game's final minutes (Kansas dunked at the buzzer, but this time in a loss). This time, the Jayhawks didn't make that impossible three to send the game to overtime.

And when all was said and done, Iowa State pulled into the driver's seat in the Big 12 with an 86-81 win.

I'll stop short of calling this the biggest win of the Hoiberg era, because there have been other great ones. And it's not the only time ISU has beaten Kansas — in fact, the Cyclones now own a two-game winning streak in the series.

But this game was different than winning in the Big 12 Tournament, and it was different than pulling a major upset against the Jayhawks. This was Iowa State gaining the upper hand on Kansas and proving to be a credible challenger in the years to come.

This game will go down in Cyclone lore for the GameDay appearance and the return of Hilton Magic, stolen back from the Jayhawks.

But perhaps more importantly, the nation saw on Saturday night that Iowa State doesn't need any magic to challenge for the Big 12 crown. They also saw why the Iowa State basketball experience is so underrated, and thanks in part to this win, it's not leaving the national consciousness anytime soon.