‘We talk about it almost every day’: Iowa State wants to bring Hilton back to the top

Cyclone Alley, the official student section of Iowa State, cheers on the Cyclones during a 86-81 victory over No.9 Kansas on Jan. 17, 2015 in Hilton Coliseum.

Matt Belinson

AMES — George Conditt IV and his teammates talk about it every chance they can.

For the senior big-man from Chicago, Illinois, it’s his driving motivation ahead of a season that many outsiders have pegged to be another losing one. 

The goal? To bring back the magic to Hilton Coliseum.

Most of the time when vague terms like fanbase excitement, or a so-called rejuvenated energy, or even the word ‘passion’ gets thrown around, it can often be seen as a worn-out cliche wrapped around teams that do not have a lot to shoot for. But it’s no mere sentiment for Conditt, his coaches and teammates.

He’ll make sure you know that.

“We talk about it almost every day. Every time we practice at Hilton, we just imagine having that feeling of fans around you. I talk to them about hanging banners,” Conditt said.

He’s seen the magic up close and personal. After all, his first season as a Cyclone he and his teammates went to Kansas City and won the Big 12 Tournament and made it to the NCAA Tournament. And in the first game of his sophomore year, they hung the Big 12 Tournament Champions banner in the rafters of Hilton Coliseum.

“That was a moment where I could never forget,” Conditt said. “I talk to them about it all the time, raise another banner, put another plaque on that wall.”

But Conditt also saw one of the rock-bottoms of the program less than three seasons later.

On March 2, the Cyclones fell to Texas in Hilton Coliseum 81-67, dropping their record to 0-9 in conference play on their home court and 0-16 in league on their way to an eventual 0-18 conference record. Conditt took the loss, and all the ones before it, personally. When asked post-game about the loss in March, Conditt was searching for answers and was frustrated with how far the Cyclones had fallen. 

“It’s not an Iowa State thing. Coming close to top-ranked teams isn’t an Iowa State thing,” Conditt said back in March. “Texas is a great team, all the teams in the Big 12 are great teams, but, ‘Oh, we lost two.’ There’s no moral win at Iowa State.”

After three disappointing seasons for the Iowa State men’s basketball program — riddled with far too many losses, a winless Big 12 season and a below .500 home record — T.J. Otzelberger and his new regime are on a quest to restore Hilton Coliseum, and the subsequent magic that can be created within it, back to the top of not just the Big 12, but the college basketball world at large.

Why? It’s been missing from the program for too long.

Otzelberger said as much in his introductory press conference in March, citing the need to restore Hilton right after he thanked his family, friends and Iowa State administration for hiring him.

Before he mentioned scheme, roster makeup and recruiting — ‘Hilton Magic’ was his first priority.

“I know the things that matter to our fanbase and I’m eager to sell our vision,” Otzelberger said less than three minutes into his opening statement on March 19. “We need to bring the magic back to Hilton Coliseum. We need to start building a foundation that’s going to create the success over the long haul.”

How did it get here?

It’s more than just a 2-22 season for Iowa State, that’s for sure.

Since the Cyclones last made the NCAA Tournament in the 2018-19 season, when they went 12-4 at home, Iowa State has gone a combined 13-16 in Hilton.

And it’s worse for Big 12 home games.

Iowa State has gone 10-17 in Big 12 home games over the last three seasons, with the program’s last Big 12 win coming on Feb. 25, 2020 over TCU. Go back even further, and since the 2016-17 season, Iowa State is a combined 20-24 at home in the Big 12. Since the 2000 season, that’s the worst four-season stretch of combined conference home records.

For veteran guard Tre Jackson, the previous seasons might have been out of his control, but he’s been in the program since 2019 and has been apart of more losing than winning. In order to bring back the ‘Magic’, Jackson said Iowa State has to do one simple thing: Win.

“When we start to win, that’s when everything falls under that ‘magic’,” Jackson said.

And 2020 cast outside forces beyond the Cyclones control in terms of what kind of ‘Magic’ was even allowed and safe enough to be in Hilton. Just 1,373 fans were allowed per game in 2020 (less than 10 percent of the full 14,384 capacity) and the Cyclones’ play on the court didn’t bring much of a crowd to begin with. But no matter what, a lack of an opportunity for the madness at Hilton to be felt had unknown impacts on the season that turned out to be historically bad.

Otzelberger wasn’t in the program last season, but had to deal with a lack of ‘Hilton Magic’ to sell to recruits this past summer and beyond as COVID-19 continues to make visits challenging.

“Not having fans at Hilton Coliseum, I mean, that’s something in recruiting we talk about a lot. A good amount of our recruits come here to have that experience, so when that’s taken away it’s hard to say how that will impact people,” Otzelberger said.

“I’ve been here when we weren’t at the top of the league and seen that climb and have seen what that pride looks like. Our enthusiasm and energy needs to match what they bring.”

While he struggled initially to put his finger on one moment that exemplifies what ‘Hilton Magic’ was at its peak, there’s one that sticks out in Otzelberger’s mind.

It’s Jan. 18, 2012 to be exact.

Iowa State redshirt senior Scott Christopherson nailed a three-pointer to give the Cyclones a comeback victory over the Oklahoma State Cowboys, setting the stands of Hilton ablaze with cheers. Otzelberger remembers the Cyclones clawed their way back down six points with under three minutes left and how the 6-foot-3 Christopherson pounced onto the scorer’s table in celebration after his shot. Oh, and the Cyclones were 17-2 at home that season.

It’s those type of moments and that type of atmosphere Otzelberger is working every day to achieve once again. But it’s those raw emotions that also make ‘Hilton Magic’ so hard to explain to someone who’s never been apart of it.

“It’s hard to really explain, because I came out of my [introductory] press conference and walked in there and gotta little choked up because you just think about all the moments, the games, the memories, the shots, the storylines and how special it truly is,” Otzelberger said of Hilton Magic.’

Time to go to work

All the talk of restoring Cyclone pride and raising banners is nice for social media captions and those unfamiliar with how things work in Ames, but the Cyclones know in order to start the path toward reaching its goal, it’s time to go to work. Talk only lasts for a limited time.

“On our home court, we’re not only going to expect to win, but play a certain brand of basketball that’s gritty, that’s tough,” Otzelberger said.

Tyrese Hunter may have joined the program in the summer and has technically only been a Cyclone for five months, but he’s not shying away from helping bring glory back to Hilton Coliseum. Hunter loves to work and has a craving to win. It’s why didn’t pack up and leave when Steve Prohm was fired after last season. He came to Ames to run toward the problems facing the program, not from them.

And it has to be a daily process, especially after winning two games in 2020 for players like Hunter to see it through.

Practice has to be hard and a grind. And to help with Cyclone pride, Otzelberger has held multiple practices in Hilton to show off the scope of what the ‘Magic’ can look like up close.

But it’s early November. This is about the end-game. And Hunter, as young as he is, knows ‘Hilton Magic’ will take commitment. They can’t waver and it’s going to take all of them.

“We can’t say today and then worry about Nov. 9th, so we just take it day by day and competing every day and getting better every day and listening to our coaching staff and our peers around us,” Hunter said.