NEW YORK -- As he walked back to the locker room following his team's 81-76 Sweet 16 loss, DeAndre Kane had a smile on his face. It didn't last long, but he had good reason for a quick grin.
Between his postgame press conference and the journey back to the Cyclones' quarters, which is about a 150-yard trot, who happened to be in the hallway but Madison Square Garden's most famous sideline patron.
"You had a good game," Lee stopped to tell Kane.
"Thanks. When you coming out with your next pair of shoes?" Kane asked.
"Soon," Lee said.
Then Lee, with a Knick hat tugging at his eyebrows, flashed a smile and pointed at Kane. The senior Cyclones guard who changed the entire outlook for ISU this year couldn't help but show some teeth too. He and teammate Dustin Hogue -- a Yonkers kid who had just scored a career-high 34 front of many friends and family -- put their arms around each other and sauntered back into the locker room.
Not a bad moment in the midst of a disappointing evening for two guys who put up 50 total points and made one last push in the closing minutes before giving way to the Huskies. It wasn't an ugly loss, but it looked ugly at times for Iowa State, which was in its first Sweet 16 appearance under Fred Hoiberg.
Once Kane got to the locker room, he had a long hug with teammate Naz Long, who refused to let Kane take the blame for the loss. Kane was having none of it. He came to this program last summer as a one-year grad transfer. It wasn't his team when he got there, but it soon became his once ISU got out to a 14-0 start and looked like one of the best teams in the country. He played this season to better himself, and in the memory of his father.
"All year I've been the one to take responsibility," Kane said. "This is on me tonight. It hurts to go out like that. I didnt pull through. I put this one on my shoulders. I've got great teammates, great brothers."
This was their team -- the guys who'd already been here -- but Kane was somehow able to blend in yet become the star. He averaged 17.1 points, 6.8 rebounds and 5.8 assists; only UCLA's Kyle Anderson put up a comparable line across the three major categories this season. A consumate do-it-all player, he also became one of the most surprising breakout guys in college basketball this season. He was no secret while at Marshall, but he was never this good. And he was the latest in an impressive line of transfers to come into Iowa State and show impact.
Hoiberg, perhaps more than any coach ever, is proving and showing how you can transform a program by taking guys from other paths and putting them on yours. Iowa State is nationally relevant and on pace to stay as such in part because of guys like Kane. (Royce White is another famous example, but there have been a handful in the past three years. Still, none have been as good as Kane.)
Long was there the day Kane visited last year, and he said he knew it would be the right fit. He and the team talked about a deep tournament run, about winning a championship or two. The locker room scene afterward was of course a tad depressed, but there was some pride, too. Kane and senior Melvin Ejim -- the Big 12 player of the year -- helped create the next step for the school. If Hoiberg opts to stay around, any bigger steps going forward will be owed in large part to those guys.
Kane and Co. couldn't overcome the foot injury to Georges Niang, which happend in the Round of 64 win over NCCU and effectively eliminated the Cyclones from serious Final Four consideration. But looking back at what he did, Kane has to nod at the accomplishments of this team and his year. Yet he only wanted to discuss what was happening going forward.
"Iowa State is not going anywhere," Kane said. "This is a great program with great coaches, and it's going to be even better next season."
As Iowa State's players were eating a late dinner and packing up their bags, an awkward dichotomy presented itself. Madison Square Garden has some fairly thin walls, it turns out. In the locker room directly next to theirs, a buzz became a rumble which burst into a roar.
It was Michigan State. The Spartans were being called out to the court. They were in pre-game, one more rally before business time. Iowa State's players shot a few looks at each other. Two and a half hours earlier, they were doing the same thing. They knew the feeling. It felt familiar -- the cheers were close -- yet couldn't be further away now with a bus engine going, waiting to take them home.