Ames, Iowa — Former Ames High School and Iowa State University basketball standout Fred Hoiberg is often referred to as the most popular player in the history of Cyclone basketball.
The 38-year-old former NBA combo guard — nicknamed “The Mayor” after receiving write-in votes during the 1993 Ames mayoral race — currently is riding a wave of popularity as the 19th head hoops coach in ISU history as well.
Hoiberg’s first Cyclone team takes a 13-3 record — 0-1 in Big 12 Conference play — into today’s game against Kansas University (15-0, 0-0). Tip is 8 p.m. at Hilton Coliseum, where the Cyclones have rolled to a 10-1 mark.
“Fred’s a class guy and obviously was a great hire,” KU coach Bill Self said, noting he knows the man who recruited Hoiberg to ISU, Johnny Orr, better than Hoiberg himself.
“There seems to be energy, bounce and enthusiasm with the program and I’d think he and their fans are pretty proud of that. I’d expect it will be as good an atmosphere as we’ll play in all year long.”
That’s partly because legendary coach Orr will be honored tonight. Also, there’s a feeling the Cyclones, who fell at Nebraska, 63-62, Saturday, feel they have a realistic shot at downing KU with Hoiberg at the helm.
“This gives us an opportunity to see where we are against one of the top two teams in the country. I think they and Duke are the best teams right now,” Hoiberg said. He left his post as vice president of basketball operations for the Minnesota Timberwolves last spring to take over for Greg McDermott, first-year head coach at Creighton.
“It’s a special night for us. We’re bringing coach Orr back, opening Johnny’s Legends sports bar up in the concourse (with a statue of Orr in front). It’ll be an electric night. Hopefully we’ll bring back some of the Hilton Magic we’re trying to re-establish.”
Hoiberg went 3-1 as a player versus KU (1991-95) in Hilton, 0-4 in Allen Fieldhouse and 1-0 in Kemper Arena.
“I remember those games against Kansas, you have a little extra in your tank,” said Hoiberg, who exploded for 32 points, including 17 straight in the second half, to pace ISU over KU, 69-65, on Jan. 14, 1995 in Ames. He hit six of 12 threes in that game.
“When we played at Kansas, it was never much of a game. The close games were always at Hilton. Basically at Kansas, they go in with a bullseye on their back every time they play. Those guys have to be at their best night in and out and they are. That’s how they play.
“It gives our guys a great opportunity. Hopefully we can stay in the game and give our fans something to cheer about.”
Hoiberg’s 2010-11 Cyclones claimed marquee victories at Iowa (75-72) and Virginia (60-47) in the nonconference season, while also losing at Northern Iowa (60-54) and at home to Cal (76-73).
“They will be juiced. This will be one of the harder games we play going to Ames,” Self said. “They’ll be honoring coach Orr. They’ll be playing, ‘Here’s Johnny (Orr’s old theme song)’ and probably every past player he ever coached will be there. Add to that they have a good team, better than last year.”
The Cyclones — who will be bolstered by the addition of four transfers next season — normally use just seven or eight players in games. Football players Austin McBeth and Drew Mitchell were added last week just to have enough healthy players to practice.
“I’d love to be able to do toughness drills in practice, but with our limited bodies it’s just hard to do,” Hoiberg said. “You just try to prepare them mentally and try to save their legs as much as you can.”
Diante Garrett, a 6-4 senior point guard from Milwaukee, averages a team-leading 17.1 points a game. He has 93 assists against 46 turnovers. Scott Christopherson, a 6-3 junior guard from LaCrosse, Wis., averages 14.5 ppg. He’s made 48 of 95 threes for 50.5 percent. Melvin Ejim, a 6-6 freshman from Toronto, averages 12.7 points and 7.1 boards. Jake Anderson, a 6-2 senior from Chicago, contributes 11.3 points and 8.5 rebounds, while Jamie Vanderbeken, a 6-11, 240-pound senior from Belleville, Ontario, averages 10.8 points and 5.7 boards. Vanderbeken has blocked 36 shots and stroked 36 of 85 threes for 42.4 percent.
“It’ll be a tough matchup. Our big guys will have to get out and guard,” Self said.
Hoiberg believes he has a team that won’t back down.
“Our guys are going out every night with a purpose on the defensive end of the floor,” he said. “We talk about playing with confidence every night and giving ourselves a chance to win.”
The current, No. 3-ranked Jayhawks enter with a healthy dose of respect for coach Hoiberg.
“I’ve heard of him. I’ve seen him play. I know his jersey is hanging in the rafters there,” said KU senior Tyrel Reed. “I know he was a great player and is a great coach.”
Noted Brady Morningstar: “I followed his NBA career a little bit, especially when he was with the Bulls (1999-2003). He was a good player. I know it’ll be a tough game. It’s always pretty crazy when we go up there.”
KU has won 10 straight in the series, six straight in Hilton. The last Cyclone win over KU was a 63-61 overtime victory on Feb. 19, 2005, in Allen. The last ISU win in Ames over KU was a 68-61 decision on Jan. 31, 2004.
“Iowa State is a great place to open at,” said KU junior Marcus Morris. “They are a capable team. The place will be juiced up. I think we’re all excited for conference play. We’re all saying it’s about time it’s here. I felt it was taking a long time to come.”
KU will return home to meet Nebraska at 1 p.m. Saturday in Allen.