Take a look back at the 2016 NCAA Tournament in Des Moines, the city’s first time hosting first- and second-round NCAA games.
The Des Moines Register
Editor’s note: This story by former Register sports reporter Andrew Logue originally ran in March 2016.
The role of mentor fits Marcus Fizer.
He once helped carry Iowa State to a sweep of the Big 12 regular-season and postseason titles and then an Elite Eight run through the 2000 NCAA Tournament.
In a span of 4 ½ months, the 6-foot-9 Fizer blossomed into a consensus all-American and lottery draft pick of the NBA’s Chicago Bulls.
And then it went away.
Despite his lofty draft position. he struggled to find his niche in the NBA ranks and never reached the same sort of heights he experienced in college.
Now, the former power forward is living in Las Vegas and coaching his 17-year-old son, Aamondae Coleman, a budding star in his own right.
“I try to get him to understand that it all seems like there is so much time and so many practices, so many jump shots you’ve got to take,” Fizer said. “But it goes by so fast, and if you blink you’ll miss the moment.”
To this day, though, images from Fizer’s stellar 1999-2000 season remain vivid to the Cyclone faithful.
He averaged 22.8 points, 7.7 rebounds and was the centerpiece of a 32-game winning bunch that was perhaps the best team in Iowa State history.
“What he did at Iowa State stands on its own merits,” said Eric Heft, a Cyclones radio analyst for the past 37 years. “There’s a lot of great college players who never became great pros. It doesn’t change anything about what (Fizer) did at Iowa State.”
What he did was lead a season unlike any other at Iowa State.
More stories in our “Moments of Madness” series:
The ‘kid with glasses’
Fizer, who split his childhood between Detroit and Arcadia, La., is still the only McDonald’s All-American to join the Cyclones out of high school.
His journey to Ames began when a youthful Fizer met coach Tim Floyd’s wife and mother-in-law.
“My wife’s grandmother was in a nursing home in Arcadia,” recalled Floyd, who was then at the University of New Orleans. “The caregiver was Marcus’ aunt.”
Sheila Frazier noticed one day when they were looking over a New Orleans basketball media guide. She explained that her nephew, Marcus, loved the sport. It wasn’t long before he was visiting the nursing home.
“A little kid with glasses,” Floyd said. “My wife, Beverly, showed him the media guide and then gave him the media guide when he left.
“And I guess he carried around like a Bible for about 4 or 5 years.”
Fizer grew into one of the top prospects in Louisiana. Floyd’s mother-in-law kept him updated on Fizer’s progress.
“I didn’t pay any attention to it,” Floyd said. “And then, she sent a clipping his junior year. He had 47 (points) in the state championship game.
“So, I started getting really close to my mother-in-law at that point, because she was on top of it.”
By that time, Floyd was coaching the Cyclones. Fizer, who averaged 27 points and 12 rebounds his junior season at Arcadia, had developed into Louisiana’s top prospect and was among the top 25 nationally.
“I still had never seen him play until July of his senior year,” Floyd said. “In the first conversation, he said he was coming to Iowa State, and it was all because of my wife and mother-in-law.”
Cast of characters
It didn’t take long for Paul Shirley to realize how imposing Fizer could be.
“I had to guard him every day,” said Shirley, a former Cyclones post player. “So I saw a lot of him, and it was terrifying.
“He was huge, but also mobile. And had all of the tools.”
Fizer’s talents were immense, and in high school he relied on raw ability to overwhelm opponents. He was 6-8 and a bundle of muscle.
“He struggled a little bit with understanding how the game worked,” Shirley said. “I remember one time coach Floyd saying, ‘Marcus, we’re going to have you go over here and set a screen.’
“Marcus stood there dumbfounded and Coach said, ‘Oh, you don’t know what a screen is, do you?’ … He had never been asked to set one.”
Fizer would eventually mold his skills to fit an eclectic group of teammates.
Shirley, a future author who grew up in Meriden, Kansas, came to Iowa State on an academic scholarship. Jamaal Tinsley, a native of Brooklyn, New York, who became one of the top junior college players in the country at Mt. San Jacinto (Calif.) Community College, made the lineup jell.
He took over point guard duties, allowing Michael Nurse to settle into his natural role of shooting guard.
Tinsley also brought a toughness that was forged at New York’s legendary Rucker Park.
“It was all about winning with him,” Heft said. “At Rucker, or any other playground, if you win you get to keep playing.
“You lose, and you’re done for a while.”
Floyd was gone before Tinsley arrived, leaving Iowa State in 1998 to coach the Chicago Bulls. He was replaced by a protege, Larry Eustachy.
Eustachy was the first assistant Floyd hired when he took over the program at Idaho in 1986. It helped launch Eustachy’s career, and he was coming off an NCAA Tournament appearance at Utah State when the job at Iowa State came open. Eustachy, declined interview requests for this story.
“Coach Eustachy had a certain mindset about things,” Shirley said, “in that he wanted us to learn some early lessons.”
The Cyclones finished 12-18 in Floyd’s final year and 15-15 in Eustachy’s debut season of 1998-99.
Expectations remained tempered as the new millennium approached. Few expected what was coming.
A push to prominence
When Iowa State played Cincinnati in Hawaii on Nov. 28, 1999, nothing was more entertaining than the colorful language of the coaches: Eustachy and the Bearcats’ Bob Huggins.
“The lockers were really close to one another, and the mangers for our team counted the number of F-bombs dropped in the aggregate,” Shirley recalled. “The number at halftime was like 150.
“I don’t remember playing in that game. Mostly, I remember lots of screaming.”
The Cyclones were beaten 75-60, dropping their record to 3-2. November’s losses included a loss to Drake at the Knapp Center.
And then things turned around dramatically.
Most of the preseason publications picked Iowa State to finish in the bottom half of the Big 12. After the defeats in November, the Cyclones went on a tear, winning 19 of their next 20. On Feb. 1, the Cyclones cracked The Associated Press’ poll at No. 20.
“We figured we were a team that could really compete,” Fizer said. “We just bought into the system of what the coaching staff had set out for us.
“We believed in the system and the rest was history.”
Eustachy employed a brass-knuckles defense, which held teams to 65.1 points per game, making sure every basket came with a bruise. The Cyclones were unbeatable at home, not losing a game the entire season at Hilton Coliseum in Ames.
“We gained some momentum and started to believe we could win at home,” Shirley said. “We started to believe we would win close games at the end, which was a credit to how hard our practices were and how relieved we were when we got to a game.”
The signature victory came Feb. 16 at Kansas’ historic Allen Fieldhouse.
Iowa State had not won in Lawrence since 1982, and the 24th-ranked Jayhawks owned a 50-39 lead with 10:04 remaining.
“I just remember being down 8 or 10 points and knowing how hard or how tough it was to play in that place,” Fizer said. “Jamaal Tinsley (started) doing what he does.
“We were able to get up the floor and score a lot of big-time baskets. And before you know it, we were close to the lead.”
Tinsley’s tenacity on defense ignited a turnaround.
He created a string of turnovers, including a steal and layup to even the score 59-all with 1:47 left. Nurse hit two free throws to put the Cyclones up 61-59 with 1:11 to go.
“I just remember Tinsley being in control,” Heft said. “His ability to make the big play. He wasn’t intimated by anybody, by Allen Fieldhouse or anything, for that matter.”
Fizer delivered the dagger, a fadeaway 16-footer as the shot clock ticked down.
“I was on the post and Kantrail Horton had the ball up top,” Fizer said. “I remember thinking to myself, ‘Kantrail is about to go to work.’ At that moment, we locked eyes. I looked at the shot clock. I thought, ‘He’s about to throw me the ball.’
“He took a couple more dribbles and he threw it to me. I knew I had to get it up over (7-foot-1 Kansas center) Eric (Chenowith). The only thing I could see was glass … I saw a peek at the rim. I was able to get it over the top of him, and by the grace of God it went in.”
Iowa State led 63-59 with 10 seconds left, and eventually won 64-62.
The Cyclones exited from the Phog with a 10-1 record in the Big 12, a 22-3 mark overall and a No. 14 national ranking.
“That’s nice, it’s real nice,” Eustachy said afterward, “but we’ve still got a lot of work to do.”
After home wins against Texas and Oklahoma State in late February, Iowa State cruised to its first regular-season conference title since 1945.
The Cyclones finished 14-2 in the league and then swept through the Big 12 tournament, beating Oklahoma 70-58 in the championship game.
“As the season is winding down, I didn’t know who was going to win the league,” Heft said. “But I was pretty sure whoever won the (regular season) wouldn’t win the tournament, because there was too many teams that were about equal.
“Color me wrong on that one.”
Iowa State was awarded a No. 2 seed in the NCAA Tournament’s Midwest Regional.
It was a lofty perch for a team that wasn’t expected to play very long into March. But a rising titan with a home-court advantage loomed.
The Cyclones opened with comfortable wins against Central Connecticut State and Auburn and then gained revenge against UCLA.
Three years earlier, in the Sweet 16, a shot by Cameron Dollar allowed the Bruins to beat Iowa State 74-73 in overtime. The Cyclones also lost to UCLA in the opening round of the 1989 and 1993 tournaments.
This time, it was a bloodbath: Iowa State shot 51.7 percent and rolled to an 80-56 triumph. Fizer finished with 16 points and nine rebounds. Tinsley nearly recorded a triple-double: 14 points, 11 assists and nine boards.
“For a kid my age, UCLA had been the gold standard,” said Heft, who played for the Cyclones from 1971-74. “They had kind of been kryptonite for us. Everybody played well.”
Now, the Cyclones were elite. But there was little time to celebrate the accomplishment, with top-seeded Michigan State coming up next.
“It was a total blur,” Fizer said of Iowa State’s tournament success. “I don’t think people understand how focused we were.
“Once a game was over and we were back at practice, we practiced like it was the first day of the season. That’s the mentality coach Eustachy and the staff had.
“We never had any kind of a letdown.”
Shirley remembers thinking a trip to the Final Four seemed imminent.
The Cyclones owned a seven-point cushion with 5 ½ minutes remaining in their Elite Eight matchup before Michigan State, urged on by thousands of green-clad believers at The Palace of Auburn Hills in Michigan, began to rally.
Fifth-year Spartans coach Tom Izzo had assembled a NCAA championship-caliber roster, with point guard Mateen Cleaves as the catalyst.
Michigan State closed with a 23-5 run, but Iowa State fans will always remember the bizarre double-foul call that derailed a dream.
With 3:43 left, the Cyclones were clinging to a 61-60 lead. Shirley came down the lane and took a pass from Fizer.
Shirley put up a shot just as Michigan State’s Charlie Bell cut in front of him.
“I crash to the floor,” Shirley recalled. “I look up a little bit … in time to see the shot go through.”
Then, a whistle. At first, Shirley thought it was going to be an and-1 opportunity — and a potential 64-60 advantage for Iowa State.
Instead, there was confusion. One official called a blocking foul on Bell. Another tagged Shirley with a charge.
“When you’ve had a call go your way, and you see the officials huddle, you assume nothing good is about to happen,” Heft said.
After conferring, they called Shirley for a foul — his fifth — and waved off the basket. Bell was also assessed a foul, so Iowa State maintained possession.
Nurse missed a shot and then Bell hit a jumper to give the Spartans a 62-61 edge.
The Cyclones were livid. Eustachy eventually drew two technicals and was ejected.
“It’s been a long year and everybody dreams of getting to the Final Four,” Eustachy said in the aftermath. “It just didn’t unfold right at the end.”
Michigan State won 75-64 and would celebrate an NCAA title the following week in Indianapolis.
As former Register columnist Marc Hansen wrote: “This magnificent game could have been played a week from Monday at the RCA Dome and no one would have blinked.”
Fizer finished his final season at Iowa State with averages of 22.8 points and 7.7 rebounds and was a consensus first team All-American.
“To lose a game the way we did,” Fizer said, “to the eventual national champions Michigan State, that’s why it was such a letdown for us, because we knew in our hearts we were the better team.”
Fizer, who left after three seasons in Ames, never expected to end up in Chicago with his former coach.
The Bulls and Floyd were in rebuilding mode, but they selected former Duke star Elton Brand, a 6-foot-8 forward, with the first overall pick a year earlier. Brand was promising in that season, receiving NBA Rookie of the Year honors.
Taking Fizer with the fourth pick in 2001 made little sense then, or even now. The argument made was that Fizer, at 6-foot-8, 260-plus pounds, was capable of playing small forward and Brand could remain at power forward.
“I’m not the basketball guy, but I don’t think he and Elton are the same player at all,” Fizer’s agent at the time, Henry Thomas, told the Chicago Tribune in 2000. “There is a tendency to view them that way because of the size. But I think Elton is more like Karl Malone and Marcus is more like Charles Barkley or Larry Johnson. To me, he’s like a ‘power 3.’ He can go out and shoot the NBA 3-pointer, put the ball on the floor and lead a fast break like we saw Charles Barkley do for many years. I think there are a lot of things Marcus brings that will complement Elton and create some matchup problems for the other teams.”
“I definitely feel like it was a bad fit,” Fizer says now. “It’s something we didn’t expect.
“It was either going to be No. 3 to the (Los Angeles) Clippers or No. 5 to the Orlando Magic.”
The Bulls went 15-67 during Fizer’s rookie season of 2000-01. Fizer averaged 9.5 points and 21.9 minutes per game and was a second team All-Rookie selection.
“He came in about 30 pounds heavier than he was in college,” said Floyd, currently the coach at Texas-El Paso. “(Bulls management) felt like he could convert to small forward, and it’s a tough conversion for a player.”
The Bulls continued to stockpile players who worked in the paint, acquiring prep phenoms Tyson Chandler and Eddy Curry in 2001.
“Not all of them were going to play,” Floyd said. “And then, (Fizer) got hurt.”
Fizer averaged 12.3 points and 25.8 minutes in 2001-02, but his numbers steadily dipped from then on. He suffered a torn ACL in January 2003 and suffered another knee injury the following year.
He was out of the NBA game at age 27. His name now appears on lists of greatest NBA busts.
“He would have figured out a way to play,” Floyd said. “But the knees got him and made it very difficult for him to ever regain the form he had in college.”
Fizer continued to play professional basketball overseas for several years. His last NBA game was April 19, 2006. He scored nine points and grabbed three rebounds in 12 minutes for the New Orleans/Oklahoma City Hornets.
“Marcus probably suffered from being a little too short, a little bit too odd-sized,” Shirley said. “He needed someone to decide, ‘This guy doesn’t quite fit the mold, but we’ll figure out a way to make that work.’ ”
Source: Des Moines Register