KU came into Hilton Coliseum as boys — but left Iowa State as men

Joel Embiid was a force in the paint for the Jayhawks against Iowa State, finishing with 16 points, nine rebounds and five blocks on the night.  

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Like strong rum and eggs in the morning, Hilton Coliseum puts hair on your chest. It’s the biggie, the pit, the belly of the beast, Purgatory in concrete. Allen Fieldhouse may be the loudest venue in college basketball, but 1700 Center Drive, if you’re a visitor, is among the straight-up nastiest.

If the Phog is college basketball’s Fenway, Hilton is its Citizens Bank Park: Ear plugs are nice, but hard hats are better. Welcome to Ames, where God-fearing, courteous people walk through those doors and transform into banshees, insane with rage.

Andrew Wiggins may never see that many angry grandmothers again in his entire adult life. If he’s lucky.

When the Cyclones are right — and under coach Fred Hoiberg, they most certainly are — a visiting team doesn’t so much win at Hilton as escape. Escape, look back and laugh.

Kansas 77, Hilton Magic 70. You take it, get the heck out of Story County, and deal with the aesthetics later.

Lawrence tests your will. Ames tests your manhood. At the 13:31 mark of the second half, the hosts had been whistled for seven fouls to Kansas’ 14. KU had gone to the stripe six times to Iowa State’s 17. With 12 minutes to go in the contest, the Cyclones were in the bonus.

For the evening, Iowa State (14-2, 2-2 Big 12) went to the stripe 34 times. Kansas (12-4, 3-0) went 19 times — and every one of them, to the audience at hand, was a crime against humanity.

It’s all part of the charm. Part of the test.

See, there was a method to Bill Self’s madness, all those non-conference games from Hell.

Monday night was the reason.

Because there would be games in Ames where the locals are snarling God knows what; games in Stillwater in which you won’t be able to hear yourself; games in Manhattan where the angst will be palpable enough to cut with a small knife.

Legendary seasons along Naismith Drive are defined by legendary runs in March, and legendary runs in March are defined by clutch backcourt play and steel spines all around. Blowing the roof off the Phog is nice — expected, even — but you don’t get to take the decibels and the ghosts and the banners in the rafters with you to the Big Dance. In Bracketville, you’re on your own.

If you’re good, it’s you against the world for a fortnight. If you’re great, it’s you against the world for a month. You want the month.

It’s about toughness. It’s Wiggins posting the quietest double-double (17 points, 19 rebounds) of the season. It’s freshman Joel Embiid (16 points, nine boards, five blocks) changing shots and momentum with the flick of a mighty wrist. It’s point guard Naadir Tharpe keeping the wheel steady (four assists) with one hand amid the chaos while tossing daggers (23 points, three treys) with the other.

"I love the guy," Self told reporters after the tilt, "but I could kill the kid every other game."

It’s about patience. In a home loss to San Diego State — No. 10 San Diego State, it should be noted — on Jan. 5 that elicited the usual hand-wringing, the Jayhawks were outrebounded in their backyard by 12 and allowed the Aztecs to connect on three of their eight attempts from beyond the arc.

In the three Big 12 contests since, Kansas has out-boarded the opposition by an average margin of 11.3 per game, and Jayhawk foes are shooting just 11 of 55 from beyond the arc, or a clip of 20 percent.

Which, when you add it all up, is an awfully good formula for winning on the road. Hell, winning anywhere.

But especially there. The Cyclones are one of America’s strangest matchups, essentially answering the age-old question of what would happen if you trotted out a starting lineup with five strong, rangy, multifaceted small forwards.

It’s a nod to the mid-major approach, only with an NBA twist. The guards post you up and the bigs stretch you out and let fly from the arc. Everybody rebounds, everybody passes, everybody can shoot from just about any spot on the floor.  Of course, it sometimes means a quick shot and nobody crashing the boards; Wiggins had snatched a dozen rebounds by halftime.

There were other, more telling snapshots, too. With 17:56 left in the game, one of those aforementioned stretch-post types, 6-foot-7 Georges Niang, set up from the top of the 3-point circle and let loose. Embiid, the 7-footer, went with him, a matchup Hoiberg likes. The KU big man deflected the jumper before it was barely out of the Iowa State forward’s hands, his fourth swat of the night.

After being whistled for his second flagrant foul in as many games — the wrong kind of street cred to establish with Big 12 officiating crews — Embiid was challenged by the coaches to make a statement over the final 20 minutes.

Out went the crayons.

In came the hammer and chisel.

"I don’t know," Self said after the contest. "Maybe they’re growing up."

You can follow Sean Keeler on Twitter @seankeeler or email him at seanmkeeler@gmail.com.