Magic in the making: Iowa State basketball steps into the spotlight

Alex Halsted and Dylan Montz

Unique success between programs

On a cold, sub-zero Sunday night on the west side of Ames, Georges Niang stopped women’s coach Bill Fennelly outside the Sukup Basketball Complex after he and his women’s team returned from a thrilling overtime victory in Norman, Okla.

“Man, way to handle business,” Niang told the 19-year head coach. “We’re just trying to pick up where you left off.”

“Georges, thank you,” Fennelly told Niang as the bitter cold and negative 20-degree windchill struck him. “Get in the car. I’ve got to go.”

One by one, players from the men’s team shared their congratulations that night. “Way to go, Coach,” they told him. That connection this season has not been uncommon. As each team moved forward with unblemished records — until each dropped their first game of the season Saturday — the bond picked up.

Players from each team would tease each other about who might inevitably lose for the first time. Collectively, the group started 28-0 before a number in that second column finally appeared during the weekend.

“They’re a heck of a team,” Niang said. “I think it’s great for our program that they’re as successful as we are. It’s overall just great for the Iowa State fans, also.”

A modest Fennelly is happy his women’s team is being mentioned with the men’s.

“It’s been a lot of fun to be a part of it,” Fennelly said. “Certainly any time our program is even mentioned with the success and the good things going on the men’s side — we’re very flattered by that.”

What both teams have been a part of in the first half of the 2013-14 season has been historic for Iowa State.

Both teams set new records for the best start in a season at 14-0, and 14-game winning streaks and each moved to the top of the record books, as well. The men went undefeated in nonconference play for the first time since the 1956-57 season and the women did it for only the third time in program history.

The men’s team has gone from unranked in its first game to No. 9 in the country last week, its highest ranking since the 2000-01 season. The women’s team has jumped from No. 23 to begin the season up to No. 11 in the most recent poll, its highest ranking since the 2001-02 season.

And then there has been the magic Nikki Moody alluded to. Three top-25 victories for the men at Hilton Coliseum — two of which were top-10 wins — and two top-25 victories for the women, one at home and the other on the road.

Maybe none of those records compare to the one that has pushed Iowa State basketball into the spotlight most this season.

When the University of Connecticut men were defeated on Dec. 18, Iowa State became the lone school remaining in the country with both its men and women’s programs undefeated. That title stood alone for more than three weeks until Saturday when the men fell at Oklahoma and the women fell to No. 15 Oklahoma State at Hilton.

Yet it was that mark that had an ESPN SportsCenter anchor signing off a late night show early last week, mentioning both programs to the effect of, “There is something special going on up in Ames.”

Something historic, something Iowa State fans might call magic.

“You look around the country and there’s a lot of good teams, but to be in this position; it isn’t just about basketball,” Fennelly said. “It’s about our university getting a lot of attention and people saying, ‘Wow, look at what Iowa State is doing.’

“With social media, there are a lot of people talking that don’t know where Iowa State is.”

Rise of the programs

Fred Hoiberg remembers during his playing career at Iowa State when not much attention was paid to the women’s program.

It was a squad that was second-fiddle to the success of the Johnny Orr era at Iowa State and a team that recorded only 237 wins in its first 20 years of existence.

“There’d be 300 or 400 fans at the game,” Hoiberg said. “[It has been great] to see what Bill has done to make it a night where you want to be at Hilton Coliseum whatever team is taking the floor.”

The season prior to Fennelly’s 1995 arrival at Iowa State, the Cyclones averaged 733 fans per home game. In the 2012-13 season, that number ballooned to 9,970 people per home contest, which ranked second in the nation in attendance behind Tennessee.

Iowa State has also seen a change in fans’ tendencies when attending men’s games. Fans can be found camping at the foot of the steps leading up to Hilton as many 48 hours prior to being admitted.

Melvin Ejim began his career at Iowa State in the same season Hoiberg kicked off his coaching tenure, and has seen the Cyclones’ program come “full circle” in a span of four years.

“My freshman year we were just an average team, below average,” Ejim said. “Now we’ve become a great team, become a good team in the top-10. It’s fun to see that. It’s fun to see a program flourish and develop and to be a part of that.”

The ISU athletic department announced before the conference season began that all but four men’s basketball games were sold out, with those games remaining being sold as single tickets or limited-availability seating.

Despite the capacity crowds at Hilton, the men and women’s teams can be seen at each other’s games. Georges Niang, DeAndre Kane and Naz Long filed into the arena with fans cheering them on at Saturday’s women’s game against Oklahoma State.

They were coming off a loss of their own in Norman, Okla., but win or lose, each team knows the other is always there in support for one another.

“We’re cheering for them. They’re cheering for us,” said Jadda Buckley. “I think there is a little bit of competitiveness, too.”

With both programs housed in the Sukup Basketball Complex in west Ames, there is a lot of dialogue between Fennelly and Hoiberg.

Fennelly has admitted he has gotten tips on ways to use Hallie Christofferson on offense based on what Hoiberg did with Royce White in 2011-12. Fennelly feels fortunate to be able to have that sense of teamwork with his counterpart on the men’s side.

“The biggest guy, not just in Ames, one of the biggest guys in the country, is Fred,” Fennelly said. “When he recognizes what you’re doing and talks to the kids, it makes you feel good. Let’s be honest, it makes me feel good.”

Ejim notices Fennelly reciprocating by going to men’s practices when he can, cheering them on and talking with them. All across the board, Hoiberg knows the relationship with the women’s team is a good one.

“I don’t think that’s the norm,” Hoiberg said. “I go to coach Fennelly for advice and sometimes he’ll come down and pick my brain a little bit.

“I don’t know if I give him anything, but he sure gives me something.”

Attention doesn’t satisfy Iowa State

The notifications began rolling in on freshman guard Monte Morris’ phone after Iowa State defeated No. 7 Baylor at Hilton. That was no different than any other win this season.

“Good game,” one tweet read.

“Keep it up,” another fan told him.

“I’m your biggest fan,” he heard.

The popularity of Iowa State basketball has reached new heights. Players receive loads of tweets and they hear what fans and pundits are saying.

“It’s big time. I didn’t know the fanbase here was so huge,” Morris said of the constant feedback. “Every time I log onto Twitter, I’ve got a notification from a fan. It just shows the support. It’s just a feeling I’ve never had.”

An historic start will do that, but neither team sees a quick start or broken records as enough to satisfy their goals at season’s end.

“Any time there’s something that says “Best” or “First” in school history, that’s a good thing,” Fennelly said. “I tell our kids, there’s going to be no banners. There’s not going to be anything special, but it is to say that you started a season better than any other team that’s ever played. I think that’s a cool thing.”

As Hoiberg approaches his team in the huddle at a practice at Sukup, he asks his players if they are satisfied with a perfect nonconference slate or the longest winning streak in program history.

The answer is a resounding, ‘No.’

“(Our goal) is to go far in the tournament,” Niang said. “I said this before, if we lose in the first round of the tournament , this season would be a failure to me. I don’t see it as a success at all. I think we’re just coming in and pushing forward.”

Pushing forward after their first loss of the season, the spotlight will shine again on Hilton tonight as another top-25 showdown hits the court in Ames.

“Every time we take the floor, it’s a big game,” Hoiberg said. “We’re not going to put more emphasis or importance on one game than the next. You’ve got to take care of your home court. If you take care of your home court, at the end of the year you’re going to be fine.”

Since the 2011-12 season, the men are 40-3 at Hilton, the women are 35-5 in that same span. 

The magic of playing at home has pushed the Cyclones into national attention.

This time, the storyline is Iowa State basketball.

“I think there’s a lot of thinking that their team and our team play basketball at Iowa State,” Fennelly said. “This is the women’s team, that’s the men’s team, but we all play basketball at Iowa State and we’re all trying to do something positive.”

Daily sports writer Maddy Arnold contributed to this story.