A commitment to defense fuels dreams of renewed “magic” for ISU hoops newcomers

Mar 4, 2020; Oxford, Mississippi, USA; Mississippi Rebels guard Blake Hinson (0) celebrates during the final seconds during the second half against the Missouri Tigers at The Pavilion at Ole Miss. Mandatory Credit: Petre Thomas-USA TODAY Sports

Blake Hinson has sat out.

Been counted out.

Suffered through a non-COVID-19 illness while watching his new team go winless in Big 12 play.

So excuse the finally healthy Iowa State guard/forward’s defiant indifference to the past.

Maybe even celebrate it.

 “I’m ready to go,” Hinson, a 6-7 transfer from Ole Miss said with a rise in his voice and a shrug of the shoulders. “This is one of the better team I think I’ve played on and it’s super-exciting. I think I became a better player (while sitting out). Super-excited. Ready to go. Ready to see who we play. I’m ready to let y’all see what I’ve got for y’all.”

 It’s a new era in Ames with former assistant T.J. Otzelberger at the helm flanked by a mostly new staff and a slew of new and/or improved players — not to mention fresh mindset.

 There’s only one way to go and we know what direction that is. Just how far ISU climbs back from rock-bottom remains to be seen, but early returns in practice are encouraging. 

 “Just getting a feel for everybody,” said Minnesota graduate transfer guard Gabe Kalscheur, who started 88 consecutive games for the Gophers before a hand injury sidelined him last season. “But there’s a lot of core values being in play. There’s a standard for us — in how we practice, we stretch, how we play. … We’ve got to treat our locker room like a championship team. You’ve got to have that mindset of just being like a champion.”

Otzelberger said his Cyclones will essentially make playing stifling defense priorities numbers one, two and three.

 Everything will flow from that effort and intensity. Such an approach will also help identify the hardest working members of the team, as well, since it’s a lot more fun to sink a corner 3 than successfully close out and force a foe to miss one.

 “We’re going to be a team that tries to keep the ball out of the paint, take charges, we get deflections,” Otzelberger said. “But we utilize our defense as a way to create our offense. We believe we have a lot of guys that have a lot of different offensive talents, so we can certainly play to their strengths, but overall, we’re going to see a commitment to the defensive end of the floor and to rebounding the basketball going into transition.”

 Those aspects of the game have been weak points for the Cyclones even in the several recent good seasons in the past decade or so, so ISU’s team will be new-look in more ways than one.

 Again, that’s good. Great, even. Massive change is needed and apparently it’s coming.

 It starts with the coaching staff — and T.J.’s love of Ames and Iowa State. It flows through roster than includes just four returning players who saw significant action last season, a true freshman phenom in Tyrese Hunter, a back-from-injury redshirt freshman phenom in Xavier Foster and an influx of experienced transfers such as Hinson, Kalscheur, Izaiah Brockington, Caleb Grill and Aljaz Kunc.

 Kunc — the first player to commit to Otzelberger at ISU — provides length on both ends of the floor and throughout his career at Washington State demonstrated a commitment to playing stern defense.

 “Defense wins championships,” Kunc said. “Offense might win (some) games. I feel like we have a lot of tools. A lot of guys with length and athleticism to be able to play defense on a high level, for sure.”

 If that’s the case — and the Cyclones can pull off a rapid turn-around — that excitement Hinson spoke of will morph into Hilton Coliseum’s unique version of it, which Kunc has been acquainting himself with via YouTube videos.

 Yes, it’s *that* magic. It’s what’s been sorely lacking. That fusion of frenzied fan support and successful game play. When that perfect chord is truck? It’s sweet, sweet music. The guy they call “Jaz” is eager to not only experience it, but also help create it.

 “If you just Google ‘Hilton Magic,’ or put it in YouTube, you get a lot of clips,” Kunc said with a smile. “A part of their recruiting process was also them sending me some films of it. Having that atmosphere is kind of like a sixth player on the floor. I really look forward to (experiencing it). … The schools with that great of an atmosphere really bring the sixth player on the floor. So I feel like maybe how Iowa State, like we struggled last year, is going to change up because of the fans, too. Not just because of the new team.”

Hope, like magic, springs eternal. And there’s nothing like sitting out — and watching helplessly while the team struggles — to instill a sense of gratitude in one’s heart. Just ask Hinson.

 “This is always worth it,” he said. “I’m a little kid from Florida who’d been chubby his whole life  and now I’m in Iowa, looking kind of slim, looking kind of good. It’s worth it. This is all because of basketball. This is always worth it.”