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Iowa State calmly wins frenetic Big 12 title


KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- As Fred Hoiberg climbed the ladder to cut down the nets, there it was.

The evidence.

On the back of his shirt, a small patch of shirt that was slightly darker than the rest. It was maybe the size of a mitten.

But it was there.

The man whose lone in-game reaction is a sort of discount double check of his belt when he stands up had actually forced his glands to work a little bit.

Now realize: This puny perspiration patch was borne of a game in which his Iowa State Cyclones team rallied from a 17-point deficit to hold on for dear life and a 70-66 win over Kansas in the Big 12 tournament championship.

Had this been Gary Williams, we would have been left with a pile of gray hair, a red tie and a puddle.

But in a profession loaded with carnival barkers, foot stompers, gesticulators, whistlers, pointers, screechers, whiners and general maniacs, he is like human aloe, a balm to calm any situation.

Hoiberg has four kids -- a teenage girl and three boys -- which in most households would be the recipe for at least a little parental shrieking.

“Does Dad ever get mad?” Carol Hoiberg asked her twins, Charlie and Sam.

“No, never,’’ they said shaking their heads.

Like not even when you turn the house upside down?

“Nope.’’

“Now it’s not like he has ice water running through his veins,’’ Carol said. “This does affect him, but he just has this calm demeanor, and I think people channel that.’’

Including the most important people of all outside of Hoiberg’s family -- his players.

Down 17 with 19:34 to play, how did you feel Naz Long?

“Comfortable,’’ Long said.

And you, Georges Niang?

“I was fine,’’ Niang said. “Quitting is not in our DNA. I knew we’d come back.’’

Your thoughts, Jameel McKay?

“Not worried at all,’’ said McKay. “We believe in ourselves. We’re brothers. Would you give up on your brother?’’

Part of the Cyclones’ seemingly-misplaced confidence stems from the fact that they’ve been there before. Too often -- if you ask their diehard fan base and athletic director who is trying to recover from open-heart surgery.

In the past five games, Iowa State has trailed by a combined 75 points -- 21 against Oklahoma, 10 against TCU, 16 against Texas, 11 against Oklahoma, 17 against Kansas.

The Cyclones are 5-0 in those games.

In fact when they went into the locker room with a 37-23 deficit, more than one wise-cracking sportswriter joked that they had Kansas right where they wanted 'em.

The joke was on us.

Because it was true.

It took all of 4:15 for that 17-point lead to all but evaporate, shrinking to a four-point Jayhawk advantage.

Kansas probably didn’t know it, but at that point, the game was essentially over.

The Jayhawks, to their credit, did not go easy. A team that coach Bill Self is still trying to tag with an identity, that has power and athleticism but lacks that oomph or passion that makes teams great, got down by as many as seven but charged back to tie it with 1:29 left on a Wayne Selden, Jr. and-one.

But after Iowa State went back up by three, Frank Mason’s spin move to the hoop bounced off the front of the rim and Kansas was left with hoping that the Cyclones would miss free throws.

They did not, and for the second consecutive year, they won the tourney crown.

“It wasn’t looking too good down 17,’’ Hoiberg quipped. “But we called a timeout and just told them to cut into a little at a time and to their credit, they did it.’’

That the comeback was somehow impossible and expected is so exactly fitting of this Iowa State team. The Cyclones are at once living up to their nickname and defying it. They are a whirling dervish of basketball that is somehow contained yet frenetic, stirring up what’s supposed to be a lousy college basketball season with a style that is freewheeling without being freeform.

And while they wreak havoc and induce panic, they, like their coach never seem to sweat.

Before the comeback, and back when the gigantic hole was being dug by a bunch of clanked shots and missed layups, there wasn’t a single bit of worry on the Cyclone players’ faces. No bad body language, no finger pointing, no heads hanging.

Asked why, the players said what players do -- that they all like one another, that they hang out off the court, that they trust one another. Most teams do, though.

Yet, most teams don’t seem to be Iowa State.

What’s different?

“Our coach has confidence in us,’’ McKay said. “No matter what the situation. I wasn’t playing real well [against Oklahoma], and he just came over to me and said, ‘Don’t worry about it. You’re a great player.’’

Hoiberg treats his players like grown men, not toddlers in need of a scolding or a seat on the timeout chair. His message is endlessly positive and almost always delivered quietly.

The only thing that gets his back up -- “When I don’t run to the corner or something,’’ Long said. “He’s nuts about that because he’s all about spacing.’’

It sounds simple: He doesn’t panic so they don’t panic.

But really, it is that simple.

The line of demarcation between most college basketball teams is almost indistinguishable. It’s why, outside of Lexington, Kentucky, it’s been hard to pinpoint who is exactly what this season. Every team has good players. Every team has wild turnover of its roster.

So aside from the keyest of key ingredients -- talent -- the sanity gene is a pretty valuable one.

“You know if you’re around a high-strung person, I think you tend to be high strung,’’ Carol Hoiberg said. “I think these guys are very much like him. He coaches the way he liked to be coached, and they seem to respond to it.’’

So much so that in a crazy game when Iowa State needed an epic comeback to win, the craziest stat of all didn’t even make the boxscore.

Fred Hoiberg had three timeouts left in his pocket when the buzzer sounded.

Never let 'em see you sweat?

How bout not even bothering to sweat in the first place?