This wasn't how it was supposed to go.
Last year in March, the cardinal and gold uniform donning, high-powered college basketball team coached by its hometown hero had their best season in a decade. Iowa State's trip to the Sweet Sixteen and loss to the eventual national champions gave the Cyclone fan base immense hope for the 2014-15 squad.
After all, last year's team proved they were one of the nation's 16 best without one of their best players in Georges Niang. Had Niang not broken his foot against North Carolina Central, ISU could have potentially made a Final Four run.
Summer passed by... Football season arrived and departed with a whimper... But all was going to get better for Cyclone fans. The time for Hoiball was finally here. Coach Hoiberg was going to take this year's basketball team back to the promise land.
The season started off okay. ISU won its first three games before falling in the CBE Classic title game to Maryland. Cyclone fans were disappointed in the loss, but generally shrugged it off as a fluke. It was only the non-conference, after all.
Iowa State then went on a seven game winning streak, including impressive victories over #18 Arkansas at home and a road win in Carver-Hawkeye Arena over in-state rival Iowa. Then, ISU lost to South Carolina in the Barclays Center on January 3. Disappointing, but again - it was only the non-conference, after all.
Following the loss to the Gamecocks, the Cyclones charged into a daunting Big 12 schedule. Iowa State started off the conference slate with a 4-1 record, including a huge win over #9 Kansas with ESPN's College GameDay in Hilton Coliseum for the first time ever. Life was pretty good.
Then came an absolutely unexpected loss on the road in Lubbock to a Texas Tech team that had gone 0-6 in the conference until that day. At that point, the defeat was probably the worst in coach Hoiberg's tenure at ISU... The Cyclones couldn't buy a bucket or stop the Red Raiders from scoring. Yet, most fans decided to look past it. There would still be time to clean up the issues. It wasn't the postseason yet, after all.
As the season rolled on, a conference title race shaped up between the 10-time defending champion Kansas Jayhawks and Iowa State. ISU gave it their best shot, but KU once again ended up with the title... Their conference record a mere single game better than the Cyclones'. Once again, it was disappointing for Iowa State fans to see their team come so close, but the part of the year that really mattered was coming up.
A swarm of happy, friendly Iowans invaded Kansas City for the three days of this year's conference tournament. They were rewarded by seeing the Cyclones beat Texas, Oklahoma and Kansas en route to their second Big 12 Tournament title in a row. The championship attracted the attention of lots of people in the national media, as they gushed over ISU's ability to come back from big deficits to win ball games. It looked as if the team had finally began to figure it out at the perfect time... Right before the NCAA Tourney.
Four basketball-less days went by. On the first of those four days, ISU learned they would play the 14-seed UAB Blazers in their first tournament game. The Cyclone faithful were also excited to see a friendly bracket placement for their favorite team... A draw that seemingly led to an Elite Eight showdown with the Duke Blue Devils for a trip to the Final Four. Many basketball analysts and experts even predicted the Cyclones as a dark horse national title contender in a tournament supposedly destined to be won by a perfect Kentucky squad.
But on the 19th of March 2015, UAB stunned Iowa State by knocking them out of the first game of the tournament, 60-59. Finally, many Cyclone fans realized the vulnerabilities shown by the team earlier in the year - stretches of cold shooting and an inability to keep opponents off the boards - spelled disaster for this year's Clones. It took Fred Hoiberg's first winless NCAA Tournament as a head coach for lots of people to realize it.
The Blazers were relentless on the glass, hauling in a whopping 19 offensive rebounds against ISU. With that statistic, UAB was able to shoot only 34.8% from the field and defeat the Cyclones, becoming the first Cinderella of the 2015 NCAA Tournament.
For Iowa State, this season was supposed to be the year that Georges Niang avenged his season-ending injury from last year's tournament while leading the Cyclones on a deep tourney run. Instead, the versatile junior played an underwhelming game, going 4-15 from the field while dealing with foul trouble throughout.
"A lot of hard work was put into this season," Niang said after the game.
"This wasn't the way it was supposed to go."
That's true, Georges. The good news is, you've got one more season to work even harder to ensure success in your fourth and final year in Ames. And of course, basketball is a team sport. The loss today doesn't rest solely on your shoulders.
Next year, Iowa State won't have the services of graduating seniors Dustin Hogue, Bryce Dejean-Jones or Daniel Edozie. However, the Cyclones add transfer 3-point sniper Hallice Cooke, transfer rim-punisher Deonte Burton and 6-foot-8 JUCO Darien Williams, who was considered one of the best junior college players in 2013.
Not only does Iowa State already look better on paper for the 2015-16 season, they're still in the running for top prep forward Cheick Diallo. The 6-foot-9 player out of Our Savior New American School is ESPN's 11th best prospect in the class of 2015. Adding Diallo would immediately bolster ISU's front line, and the frontcourt of Niang, Diallo, Williams and Jameel McKay would be considered one of the best in the country.
There will be talks in the offseason that coach Hoiberg is considering leaving for the NBA. But he won't leave... He has unfinished business. So does Niang, McKay, Monte Morris, Naz Long and the rest of the returning ISU players. If there's one thing Fred Hoiberg has proved in his 42 years on this earth, it's that he will do everything to be successful in whatever he chooses to take on. This season had some success, Big 12 Tournament title most notably, but the 2014-15 Iowa State basketball team ultimately fell short of their primary goal.
The 2015-16 Cyclones won't. This UAB loss hurts like hell right now, but next year is shaping up to be a special season for ISU. I can guarantee you this loss will be in the mind of Hoiberg and his players from today all the way through next year's tournament. Countless hours will be spent in the Sukup basketball facility getting better in the offseason, with today's loss serving as the fuel to improve.
No more taking teams for granted. No more Cardiac Clones. Win at all costs. Bring Cyclone Nation the postseason glory it deserves.
Because ISU fans are the best. They stick with the University's teams through thick and thin, always providing great support no matter what. This team, and next year's, need that unwavering support right now.
Be proud to be a Cyclone. But keep in mind...
"Are you satisfied?"
Until next season, Hoiball.