IOWA CITY — John Beilein was there. He saw the crowd whip into a frenzy, taunt All-American prospect Mitch McGary and rush the floor after his Michigan squad lost 77-70 at Hilton Coliseum.
Iowa State beat the Wolverines on Nov. 17 in a rare clash of major-college teams on campus. Beilein, who guided Michigan to an NCAA runner-up finish last April, was impressed with the Cyclones and how Fred Hoiberg has blended holdovers with freshmen and transfers. But most of all, Beilein raved about the atmosphere.
“That was a tremendous environment on a Sunday afternoon,” Beilein said. “I know I was excited to play (there). Our kids were excited to play in that atmosphere.”
For Iowa State, Hilton Coliseum boasts one of college basketball’s great home-court advantages. The Cyclones are 21-1 at home the last two seasons with its only loss marred in controversy. Since Hoiberg took over, ISU is 50-9 at Hilton.
Friday’s game between No. 17 Iowa State (7-0) and cross-state rival No. 23 Iowa (10-1) is the 14th sellout at Hilton over the last three seasons. It also marks the biggest game in Cy-Hawk series history.
This game is over-the-top with storylines. It’s the only second time overall — and first since 1987 — the teams have met as ranked foes. Both teams have a mirror-like resurgence after slumping for much of the 2000s. The fan bases are energized about their coaches, from Hoiberg to Iowa’s Fran McCaffery. Both programs have earned the respect and the interest of their peers.
Beilein, who faces Iowa every year in Big Ten play, sees it as a toss-up.
“Isn’t it cool that you’ve got two teams in the same state both nationally ranked so that’s terrific, first of all, for college basketball overall,” Beilein said. “But it’s difficult to win there.
“As you look at it, though, is that Fran has very, very veteran team. That really helps when you have the guys who have played in the postseason last year in NIT and they played in the Big Ten. It’s going to be a very good basketball game. The home environment will be tough for everybody, and Iowa may be in that position to win that game. That’s going to be a great one.”
Kansas State Coach Bruce Weber led Illinois for nine seasons. His final game was a 64-61 loss to Iowa in the 2012 Big Ten Tournament. Kansas State and Iowa competed in a closed scrimmage at Council Bluffs this year. He, like Beilein, calls this game going either way.
“For both teams, who’s going to be the guy that takes care of the ball and gets it in the place in transition?” Weber said. “A good match-up. I anticipate it will be very, very high scoring.”
Hoiberg played against Iowa for four seasons in the early 1990s and served as a Cyclones ball boy in the 1980s. He was at Hilton in 1987 when ISU’s Lafester Rhodes scored 54 points to beat the Hawkeyes 102-100 in overtime, the only previous game when both teams were ranked.
“It’s fun to be a part of this as a coach as well,” Hoiberg said. “It’s going to be a fun atmosphere. You’ve got two teams that are ranked in the top 20 and both teams feel pretty good about themselves right now. It should be a lot of fun.”
McCaffery coaches his fourth Cy-Hawk game, holding a 1-2 record.
“This is a rivalry game where we don’t have to go through Iowa State, and they don’t have to go through Iowa to win the championship,” McCaffery said. “I have tremendous respect for Fred and how’s he’s built it. I consider him a friend, and we’ll try to beat each other.”
Globally, the match-up has ramifications beyond the state borders. If Iowa State wins, the Cyclones are 2-0 against ranked Big Ten opponents. An Iowa win gives it a signature road victory and boosts the Big Ten’s RPI.
But at the game’s grass-roots level, the big picture matters little. The Hawkeyes have lost five straight in Ames, and the home team has won nine of the last 10. Unlike football, there’s no trophy involved. But a trophy is just a symbol of victory. A win against Iowa State this season means so much more, Iowa senior Zach McCabe said.
“This is the one game we have all year, it’s your bragging rights,” said McCabe, a Sioux City native. “Who’s the better team? Growing up in this state, it’s always that game, whether the teams are good or not, it’s always something that you look forward to, to see who won. As a senior, I haven’t won there yet. That’s what I want to do, come out winning in Ames.”
Likewise, the pain of losing this game also provides motivation.
“I remember looking around (Iowa’s) arena last year countless amount of times and just looking at the fans going crazy,” Iowa State guard Naz Long said. “We didn’t play our best game, and it hurt.
“I’ve been waiting for this game for a year and I’ve been preparing for it. Sometimes I catch myself in the gym just thinking, ‘I can’t wait for the Cy-Hawk game.’ It’s going to be crazy in Hilton. … All the emotions and everything we felt when we left there with that loss, it’s not forgotten.”
Rivalry games never are … especially when they have epic expectations.