AMES, Ia. Welcome to border-to-border relevance in men’s basketball, state of Iowa.
Welcome to the promise of March. Welcome to the smell of sweat and blood and want and will. Welcome to what it feels like when nerve endings tingle and catching your breath is anything but guaranteed.
Welcome to finishes like No. 17 Iowa State’s scintillating 85-82, come-from-behind victory against No. 23 Iowa on Friday at Hilton Coliseum.
When sophomore Georges Niang dipped and ducked and slithered under the hoop for a reverse layup with 18 seconds to play and Iowa’s 80-percent free throw shooter Mike Gesell missed a pair from the line seconds later, the <FZ,1,0,20>building shook as if eardrums were about to shatter.
Two teams with more March potential at the same time than they’ve shared in a quarter of a century promised a show — and delivered in the biggest way possible.
“There were some really good players out there, going at it,” Iowa coach Fran McCaffery said. “That’s what college basketball is.”
Want stars, state of Iowa?
How about Niang, who operates under the basket unlike anyone in the country — in a spot one moment, gone the next, on the way to 24 points?
How about Melvin Ejim, his Cyclone teammate, who grinds and grinds and grinds to dig out 22 points? What about Dustin Hogue, who snagged 16 rebounds?
How about Iowa’s Aaron White, who threatened to win the in-state rivalry all by himself down the stretch, piling up 25 points on 11-of-15 shooting with 17 rebounds to boot?
It was almost as if former NFL coach Dennis Green was sitting courtside, bellowing: “They are who we thought they were!”
When high-flying Ejim attacked the basket with a little more than four minutes gone in the game — with evil intent for rim, ball and opponent alike — Iowa’s Melsahn Basabe attacked right back.
Instead of a “poster” dunk destined for the next lap of SportsCenter, Ejim sprawled across the court as Iowa raced the other direction. The moment provided an early preview of what was at stake Friday and what would be exerted, serving notice that weakness of body or spirit was prohibited.
Fouls were harder. Taunts were louder. Fist-pumps were truly earned.
Iowa, to its credit, kept digging out answers. Even though Iowa State improved to 8-0, it only led against Iowa for 2 minutes, 53 seconds.
“I felt like we were stuck in the mud the whole game,” Niang said.
When a state’s biggest basketball fan bases wait longer than any of its current players have been alive for a game to matter that much, the anticipation almost drips off the court.
Iowa State students braved freezing temperatures to camp out for nearly 38 hours before arena doors opened.
Heck, ESPN analyst Fran Fraschilla attended the game — and he wasn’t even working. Fraschilla drove three and a half hours from Kansas City, the site of his television game today between Kansas and New Mexico.
“I decided to see one of the games of the season — in person,” he said.
Truth is, hoops in Iowa hit air so rarified that it took a trip to 1987 to find a time the Cyclones and Hawkeyes faced off as ranked teams.
Blue-chip stock status has returned to the state’s biggest programs at the same time, enough so that the game became must-viewing nationally, from as close as possible.
“I don’t like to shoot my mouth off on TV without doing my homework,” Fraschilla said. “This is one of those games you need to see.”
The other reason to watch: The teams made up one-third of the top six offenses in the country. Iowa State entered the game leading the nation with 91.7 points per game, while Iowa sat five spots behind at 89.5.
For Iowa, now 10-2, these are the kinds of games you need to win … ranked team, on the road, hostile environment.
Those are the kinds of victories that attract the favor of NCAA Tournament button-pushers when bracketology blooms. Those wins make bubble teams last-ones-in. Those wins work wonders, too, in the at-large seeding structure.
NCAA fortunes are scribbled in pencil rather than pen when the calendar says December, though.
Remember a season ago, when Iowa tripped up the Cyclones in Iowa City? The loser reached the tournament — and the winner laced up for the NIT.
Is there anyone, though, who feels like either of these teams will fall short of the tournament that matters most in three months?
“I think Iowa’s going to go really far,” Ejim said.
In college basketball, good teams score. Great teams answer.
Well, state of Iowa, it appears you’ve got two teams dialed up in full answer mode.
“I think the game lived up to the hype — every little bit,” Niang said. “I think the rivalry is back.”
Enjoy it, Iowa. You’ve waited a long time.
Bryce Miller can be reached at 515-284-8288 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter: @Bryce_A_Miller
Category: Iowa Hawkeyes men's basketball