John Rieger-USA TODAY Sports
This time, it's personal.
Get excited, Cyclone fans. Shit, no one needs to tell you to get excited. You ARE excited. The minute the final buzzer sounded on February 25th to seal Iowa State's second loss this year to the Kansas Jayhawks, the same thought flashed through almost every Cyclone fan's mind:
Just one more shot.
One more chance to try and beat Kansas this year. One more shot to finally beat the bullies of Big 12 basketball. And here it is, gift-wrapped for Cyclone fans in Kansas City with the extremely happy hour-friendly tip time of 6:30 PM Central. And the beautiful thing is, this time Iowa State meets Kansas in the Big 12 tournament. This time it counts.
Think of those first two games as warm ups. They were nearly identical. Both games were close throughout, with Iowa State opening up a two possession lead in the final minute of regulation. Both featured missed free throws by Korie Lucious in the final minute that might have sealed the victory for Iowa State. Both featured complete gut-punches at the end of regulation that gave Kansas all the momentum entering overtime (Ben McLemore's bank in the first, referee Tom O'Neill's stroke in the second).
But regardless of the outcome, both games were absolutely entertaining to watch, some of the best games of the year. In two meetings, Iowa State and Kansas combined to produce two overtime games that featured 25 lead changes and 390 points. THAT'S exciting. THAT'S Big 12 basketball.
So expect another instant classic. The only worry about the game is which heretofore underutilized Kansas player will drop 30 points on Iowa State. In the first game, it was redshirt freshman Ben McLemore who went off for 33 points on 10-12 shooting (16.7 points/game season average). In the second game, it was journeyman senior Elijah Johnson who put up 39 points (10.2 points/game season average). So yeah, you should probably prepare yourself for Jamari Traylor to come out of nowhere to light up the scoreboard.
One reason the ISU-KU matchup has been so entertaining as of late is the emphasis that Fred Hoiberg places on the Kansas games each year. Hoiberg talks a lot about winning Big 12 championships, and for most of the Big 8 and Big 12's existence, the road to a conference championship in basketball has gone through Lawrence. It certainly has for 11 out of the last 12 years, when Kansas has won or shared the Big 12 title. Hell, Kansas had the outright conference title won this year after Kansas State lost at Oklahoma State (understandable loss), but they got blown out by a slumping Baylor team (hilariously inexplicable loss).
If Iowa State wants to hang another Big 12 banner in the rafters of Hilton anytime soon, the Cyclones need to start beating Kansas regularly. Fred Hoiberg has done it once in six tries so far. Iowa State came achingly close to two more victories this season. But Kansas didn't get to be who they are by rolling over at the end of games. To beat Kansas, teams can't miss free throws at the end of the game. Teams can't give up transition baskets that take only seconds off the game clock. Teams need to play their best game in the final minutes, something that Iowa State didn't do the first two times they played Kansas.
But today's a new day, and a new game. It's too late for Iowa State to win the regular season conference title this year. But they can still win the conference tournament, something the Cyclones haven't done since the '99-'00 season. And as usual, the path to that championship goes through Kansas.
So here it is, Cyclone fans. One more shot at the (partial) champ. One more chance to avenge two heartbreaking losses. Let's watch and hope Fred Hoiberg's Cyclones learned something from the first two Kansas matches and takes full advantage of their third chance.