Hoiberg has Cyclones running and winning

DAYTON, Ohio -- Three years ago, Fred Hoiberg almost looked lonely.

It was Hoiberg's first Big 12 media day as the coach at Iowa State, his alma mater, and when each coach sat down to field questions at their own folding table, the media scrum went in all the usual directions: Kansas' Bill Self was swarmed, Baylor's Scott Drew was fending off questions about a recent recruiting scandal, and everybody wanted a quote — or at least a quality stare — from Kansas State coach Frank Martin.

Save Hoiberg, the Cyclones coach's table was mostly empty. He sat with his hands folded, cell phone flat in front of him, like a teenager sliding through his first day at a new school.

"I don't know," Hoiberg said, when a reporter asked him for an interview. "I'm pretty busy over here."

On Friday night, just minutes after Iowa State's dominant 76-58 win over No. 7 seed Notre Dame, Hoiberg stood in the corner of the UD Arena coach's locker room surrounded by a score of television cameras and microphones and voice recorders, squinting just so to combat the bright lights.

Surprise, surprise: Interest in Iowa State basketball has increased. When Hoiberg inherited the program as a local hero and longtime NBA scout, but also a first-time coach at any level, the Cyclones hadn't finished above .500 in any of the previous four seasons. Larry Eustachy's firing set the program back a decade. Iowa State fans understandably lost some enthusiasm. The home arena's famed "Hilton Magic" had long since faded.

The magic is back now, resurrected by not just a former player but the most intensely loved former player in program history. Hoiberg is Ames-born and raised, schooled under legendary ISU coach Johnny Orr, and his Cyclones are not only playing better basketball but playing fun basketball, too. Iowa State runs a five-out offense, with lots of fast breaks and even more 3s. That attack dismantled the slower, sluggish Irish Friday night, and it is what has re-energized a hungry heartland fan base who still remembers when The Mayor -- who earned that nickname when he received more than a few write-in votes in the 1993 Ames mayoral elections -- used to get up and down the floor.

"As a kid that used to walk to Hilton Coliseum, how fun that was for me to see Johnny Orr running up and down the floor and playing an exciting brand of basketball," Hoiberg said. "We're trying to bring that back.

"I know how important basketball is to the community, to the state," he said.

The move was a bit of a risk in the first place. Fans were uncertain. What if the Mayor couldn't coach? What if the program went south? What if Hoiberg rode back to Ames and fell flat? The memories were wrapped in a forgiving gauze; losing is one thing, but losing your fuzzy relationship with your former star is quite another.

But Hoiberg has succeeded faster than anyone thought possible, in large part thanks to transfers like Royce White (Minnesota), Will Clyburn (Utah), Chris Babb (Penn State), and Korie Lucious (Michigan State). And Georges Niang, who finished with 19 points on 13 shots Friday night, is just a freshman -- an overlooked, undersized forward who fits the offense to a tee, and presents matchup problems with his scoring and versatility.

And now the Cyclones are off to the round of 32 with a talented freshman forward, a ragtag band of transfers, a modicum of defense and a fun offensive style, and long-suffering Iowa State fans are 100 percent along for the ride. Sunday's matchup with Ohio State won't be remotely easy -- if you're a perimeter-oriented offensive team, there is no opponent in the country you want to see less than the Buckeyes -- but it's clear Hoiberg has Iowa State basketball moving forward in a real way for the first time in over a decade.

It just shows how much work we've put in, how much talent we have on our team, and the future ability I would say we'll have in the Big 12 and on the national stage," junior Melvin Ejim said. "I think we're doing a great job."