AMES, Iowa - It was not surprising that Kansas visiting Hilton Coliseum would bring a frenzied crowd intent on making magic. While both teams were ranked – two of the five Big 12 teams in this week’s top 25 – what was unusual was that Iowa State was the higher-ranked team. The last time? 2000.
But the outcome was all too familiar for the Cyclones and their fans. After losing three times to the Jayhawks last season – twice in overtime – the first Big Monday game of this season had been circled in cardinal and gold as a chance to get even.
Any Jayhawks vulnerability caused by four nonconference losses is fading. No. 15 Kansas moved to 3-0 in Big 12 play with a 77-70 victory over No. 8 Iowa State Monday night. The Jayhawks (12-4 overall) appear intent on winning their 10th consecutive conference title.
“We’re just comfortable,” said Kansas freshman Andrew Wiggins, who scored 17 and had a career-high 19 rebounds. “As a team, we’re getting better every day. Our chemistry is getting better and the pieces of the puzzle are coming together.”
Wiggins, fellow freshman Joel Imbiid and junior point guard Naadir Tharpe relay-raced the victory. Imbiid had 16 points, nine rebounds and five blocked shots. Tharpe scored a game-high 23 while taking just nine shots.
Wiggins, the second freshman in the last 15 seasons to score 17 points with 19 rebounds, scored nine points as KU jumped to an 18-8 lead to open the game. After Iowa State’s DeAndre Kane (21 points, eight rebounds, four steals on a gimpy ankle) forced a halftime tie with a buzzer-beating 3-pointer, Tharpe had five points during a 9-0 spurt to start the second half.
After the Cyclones (14-2, 2-2) pulled to within 52-47 with 11:55 remaining, the decibel level reached 110. The 7-foot Imbiid then scored 10 of Kansas’ next 14 points as the Jayhawks stretched their lead to 66-54 with 7:19 to play.
"I think Embiid is the best player in the country," Iowa State coach Fred Hoiberg said. "He's huge. He's got great length. He can shoot, he's got incredible footwork and he's been playing the game for about two years."
The polar vortex – around here, it’s called winter – has come and gone. A week ago it was 15 below; Monday during the game the thermometer was above freezing. Of course, that was outside Hilton Coliseum.
Mr. Freeze showed up as Iowa State’s shooting coach at a most inopportune time. The Cyclones launched 70 shots and 48 clanged iron. They missed 21 of 25 3-pointers. The top three scorers - Kane, Georges Niang and Melvin Ejim – went 15 for 48.
“When you’re a team that relies on making your shots, that’s hard to overcome,” Ejim said.
“We shot terrible,” Kane said. “We got good looks and didn’t knock ‘em down. I missed eight free throws. We’ll get back in the gym Wednesday and we’ll get out of this shooting slump.”
In consecutive losses, the Cyclones have made just 10 of 51 3-pointers. Saturday at Oklahoma, they were outscored on second-chance points 22-2. Kansas had a 13-point edge in that category as the Jayhawks controlled the boards 53-26. Iowa State plays at Texas, the Big 12’s top rebounding team, Saturday.
“We’re giving up size at every position,” Hoiberg said. “When we watch film on this game, we’ll be looking at our technique. It’s two games in a row where the difference has been on the glass. You don’t want this to be a trend.”
Iowa State avoided a double-digit loss and kept hope alive until the final minute thanks to an active defensive effort that flummoxed Kansas and forced 24 turnovers.
“We handled the ball miserably,” KU coach Bill Self said. “We looked like a third grade team at times. We made up for it by being pretty good on the glass. And we were fortunate that Iowa State didn’t shoot it very well.”
With March Madness six weeks away and the street fight of an 18-game Big 12 schedule in the early rounds, there are only early returns to judge the pretenders and the contenders. Kansas, though, is looking more like the latter and less like the former.
“Maybe they’re growing up,” Self said. “Maybe they have more confidence because the shots are falling but they are having more fun playing. Our nonconference record wasn’t very good but I think we got some new energy with conference play and everybody starting zero zero.”
And now Kansas, which is at home against preseason co-favorite Oklahoma State Saturday, is the only Big 12 team with a zero in the loss column.