LAWRENCE — First, it was the boos. Then the cursing. Then the noise, angry and earsplitting.
Then there was a man in yellow, stepping onto the floor at Hilton Coliseum, lobbing obscenities past an armed police officer, trying to scrap with Kansas coach Bill Self.
It was late last February, the moments after Kansas had survived a trip inside a steaming-hot Hilton Coliseum, and all (heck) appeared to be breaking loose. The Jayhawks had taken down Iowa State in overtime after a questionable charge call in regulation. Self had earned victory No. 500. And Kansas guard Elijah Johnson, who finished with 39 points, had filled the wound with sodium chloride, throwing down a dunk in the final seconds. As the boos rained down, a prominent Iowa State booster named Melvin Weatherwax moved toward Self and presumably attempted to begin a conversation about sportsmanship.
“It was more of a one-side conversation, if I recall,” Self said, smiling as he remembered the moment. “But I never had a chance to respond.”
If there’s a lesson from last year’s trip to Iowa State — and the pandemonium that ensued — it is this: When Iowa State is good, there are few buildings in the known world that can approach the energy and anger levels of Hilton Coliseum, the old concrete slab of an arena that sits in the middle of Ames. And when No. 18 Kansas walks inside on Monday for a highly anticipated matchup with No. 9 Iowa State, the Hostility Threat Level could be dangerously high.
“I hope not as hostile as last year,” Kansas junior guard Naadir Tharpe said. “Because it got a little too out of control. But going up there and playing and competing is going to be fun. It’s going to be us against them and the fans.”
Even if Elijah Johnson had never endangered his head coach with a last-second jam, Iowa State would still likely feel the need for a payback victory against Kansas. Last January, the Cyclones had nearly pulled off an upset at Allen Fieldhouse — until KU freshman Ben McLemore banked in a three-pointer to force overtime. The Jayhawks survived that one, too, before notching a third victory over Iowa State at the Big 12 tournament in Kansas City.
“Last year, we beat them three times,” Self said, “but two of them, we actually basically lost the game and won it on the scoreboard.”
Those two victories, of course, ended up being crucial as Kansas won a share of the Big 12 title for the ninth straight year. This year, with both programs featuring remade rosters, the two matchups with Iowa State could be linchpin showdowns in the Big 12 title race. The Jayhawks, despite four losses in their non-conference schedule, are already atop the Big 12 standings after starting the season with a road victory at Oklahoma and Saturday’s home blowout against K-State. Sitting at 2-0 in the early league race, Kansas would move two games ahead of Iowa State in the loss column with a victory. Iowa State, 14-1 and 2-1, is also facing the task of playing without lead guard DeAndre Kane, who is questionable after spraining his ankle on Saturday in a loss at Oklahoma.
"I'd say (Kansas is) playing as well as any team in the country right now," Iowa State coach Fred Hoiberg said on Sunday.
It is, of course, still mid January, a little too early to be breaking down league-title implications. But the Jayhawks appear to be finding an identity as they prepare for a three-game stretch that includes Monday’s game at Iowa State and home battles with Big 12 contenders Oklahoma State and Baylor.
“When things don’t go well, we have a tendency to play tight,” Self said. “And the last two games we haven’t played tight at all. So the San Diego State (loss), the more shots we missed, the basket got a lot smaller, like we were shooting at the fair.
“We couldn’t get the ball to go in the hole. Now it looks bigger.”
When Self takes teams into enemy territory, he often talks about “keeping a tight huddle.” He means it metaphorically, of course, but his players have bought into the message. Kansas is 35-8 on the road in the Big 12 since the 2008-09 season, and Self has won eight of nine at Hilton Coliseum. For years, the Hilton Magic was dormant when the Jayhawks came to town. But when KU ventures into the maw on Monday night, the huddle will have to be tighter than usual.
“They know how important the game is to them, just like it is to us,” Self said. “I would think it would be the most emotional game we’ve played this year.”