ESPN Events: Bill Fennelly

Iowa State hoops enjoying “Magic” ride

January, 14, 2014
Jan 14
5:06
PM ET
Iowa State fans of the men’s and women’s basketball teams share something in common—they believe in “Hilton Magic.” That’s when more than 14,000 fans—nearly a quarter of the population of Ames, home to Iowa State—fill the Hilton Coliseum to its capacity, cheering on their Cyclones so enthusiastically that they tip the scoreboard in their favor.

So far this season, the magic is working.

ISU’s teams are a combined 28-3 (both programs started a school-best 14-0) and are 16-2 at Hilton. And even though both teams recently saw their perfect home records ended by No. 15 teams within the Big 12, both, coincidentally, by seven points — the women, 69-62, on Saturday by Oklahoma State, the men, 77-70, to Kansas as part of “Big Monday” on ESPN — there is no wavering in Ames when it comes to “Hilton Magic.”

“Hilton Coliseum is one of the most under-rated arenas in the nation,” said men’s coach Fred Hoiberg, who played in the building in the early '90s, earning his nickname "The Mayor," and is in his fourth season coaching in it. “It’s got a passionate fan base and is a tough place to walk out of with a win. With the women filling the building, it just shows the passion that these fans have for their programs.”

“The magic of Hilton is ingrained in the people,” agreed ISU women’s coach Bill Fennelly, who’s in his 19th season—the longest-tenured coach in the Big-12. “It’s loud in a way that I think does impact the game. The players, the coaches, the fans are eerily connected. It just seems like there have been a lot of moments here where something has happened that people are like, ‘How did that happen?’ I think that’s where the magic comes from.”

As a part of its slate of 83 televised Big-12 games, ESPN is giving fans a taste of “Hilton Magic,” broadcasting all nine Big-12 games at Hilton and all 18 conference games for Hoiberg’s 9th-ranked Cyclones. (Fennelly’s squad, currently ranked 10th and 13th nationally, and second in the Big 12 after being picked for sixth in preseason polls, is not yet on the ESPN schedule, but if their momentum continues, stay tuned.)

Of course, “magic” only goes so far. Iowa State’s coaching strength is its main secret weapon. Hoiberg has won 23 games in back-to-back seasons, reaching the NCAA Tournament both years, and Fennelly’s team has gone dancing seven straight years and 14 times during his tenure. Clearly, there’s more at work here than smoke and mirrors.

Hoiberg’s men feature an All-America candidate and All-Big-12 First-Teamer in senior forward Melvin Ejim, but also a deep and versatile supporting cast. How deep? Five different Cyclones have already been named Big-12 Player of the Week, the latest being senior guard DeAndre Kane, the Big 12’s leader in conference play in scoring (22.3 ppg), assists (5.50 apg), and steals (3.50 spg), and the only player in the nation averaging at least 16.0 points, 7.0 rebounds and 5.0 assists. He’s also shown tremendous heart in playing through a sprained ankle that slowed him in the second half against Oklahoma game and against Kansas.

Heart and unselfishness have keyed ISU, which is one of only seven teams with three players averaging better than 15.0 ppg (Ejim, Kane and forward Georges Niang). “It’s a tough group to prepare for because we have so many different guys that can beat you from all over the floor,” said Hoiberg. “The thing that has impressed me the most is just how unselfish they are and how they play through adversity.”

Hoiberg’s team has overcome double-digit deficits four times to win games, including in the Hawaiian Airlines Diamond Head championship game, when they beat Boise State, 70-66, and almost made it five and six in their losses to Oklahoma and Kansas. They also have played one of the toughest schedules in the country, with an RPI of 5—they’re fifth in both ESPN BPI and Sagarin.

The Cyclones are top 10 nationally in scoring (sixth), assists (second) and assist-to-turnover ratio (first) and are just outside the top 10 three-point field goals per game (16th).

“You just look at our assist numbers. That’s just the willingness of these guys to give up a good shot to get a great shot,” Hoiberg said. “I think their defense has been better this year. I have really been impressed with the toughness of this group.”

Hoiberg is counting on that toughness to come to the forefront on the boards, where his undersized team has been outrebounded in both losses.

For its part, Fennelly’s group has gotten off to the best start in 12 years. The Cyclones feature senior forward Hallie Christofferson, an All-Big-12 First Teamer last year, who made Naismith Trophy Award and Wooden Award Preseason Watch Lists, won the Senior CLASS Award and was unanimous All-Big-12 First Team. She’s lived up to the billing, as she ranks in the top five in the conference in scoring (18.8 ppg, third), rebounding (7.8, fifth), free throw percentage (91.3, fifth), blocked shots (2.0 bpg, tied for fifth), defensive rebounds (5.50, fifth), and minutes (36.25, fourth).

“She is the kind of kid that every coach dreams about,” said Fennelly. “I’ve been coaching a long time, and I’ve had star-caliber players that at times the other kids are jealous of. Every kid on this team loves Hallie. She’s a kid that cares about everyone. This team follows the way she does things. The person she is has created an atmosphere within our team that’s allowed our two freshmen to have some success, too.”

The two freshmen, guards Jadda Buckley and Seanna Johnson, both average over 11.0 ppg, and each has won three Big 12 Freshman of the Week. Johnson also leads the conference in rebounding (9.0 rpg). The Cyclones are the Big-12’s top free-throw-shooting team, the league’s second-best team in scoring, are third in three-point shooting and fourth in assists. But they also defend, as they rank third in scoring defense, and are second in rebounding margin. Fennelly knows his team will have to continue to shoot well in the bigger Big-12.

“We’re not a very big team. So when we face the length and size in our league that could be an issue,” he said. “We have to shoot the ball really well. We shoot a lot of 3’s. We’ve been a pretty good free-throw-shooting team. So for us to be successful, that has to continue. Then, defensively, can we guard the way we need to? Since Brittney Griner finally graduated, our league is a lot more wide open, and I think it’s going to be fun.”

Hoiberg and Fennelly enjoy watching each other’s program succeed.

“I’ve been such a huge fan of Bill Fennelly ever since he took over this program,” said Hoiberg. “When I was playing at Iowa State, the women were lucky to get a thousand fans at their games. Now, with what Bill has done, last year they were second in the nation in attendance, and they’ll be up there again this year.”

“This is a community that loves Iowa State athletics, loves basketball, and it’s neat to see such a loyal fan base have a lot to brag about,” said Fennelly. “You see people in the grocery store, and they’re very supportive. They appreciate the effort that the coaches and kids are putting in.”

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