“Childish” activities helping new-look ISU program build lasting bonds off the court

SIOUX FALLS, SD – MARCH 7: Robert Jones #21 of the Denver Pioneers tries to go up for a shot against Rocky Kreuser #34 of the North Dakota State Bison at the 2020 Summit League Basketball Championship in Sioux Falls, SD. (Photo by Richard Carlson/Inertia) Summit League Basketball Tournament

 Kyle Green led the way to Iowa State.

 Robert Jones took notice, then followed.

 “The biggest thing for me was (Green) coming over from UNI and him leaving that program that’s been successful in the past to come join T.J. (Otzelberger),” said Jones, a 6-10 transfer from Denver who grew up in the Twin Cities metro. “That really stood out, as well, because it’s like, ‘OK, this guy who I trust is leaving a school that’s been successful to go coach for this coach.’ So I say, ‘OK, I might need to do the same thing.’”

 Call Jones a player-coach of sorts. He averaged 9 points and 5 rebounds in two seasons in the Summit League before deciding to join Otzelberger’s new-look Cyclones.

 Those numbers don’t wow you, but Jones’s pedigree and personality do. He’s majoring in mathematics, but renowned for understanding the art of chemistry. He brought that knack to Ames and immediately applied it with his teammates.

 “We have something like 8-10 new players on this team,” Jones said. “With that sort-of new team coming together, it’s really easy to pick up the pieces because nobody really has the structured bonds. Everybody’s together because everybody’s here and everybody’s fresh.”

 Almost everybody. George Conditt, Tre Jackson, Javan Johnson, Jaden Walker and Xavier Foster all have experience in the program, but all of the aforementioned besides Conditt and Jackson were first-year players during the doleful 2020-21 season. 

 New blood abounds elsewhere. It’s up to Otzelberger and his staff, along with Jones and others, to make sure that newness helps produce durable bonds on and off the court.

 “Hanging out outside of the basketball stuff is really important to me in building a good culture,” Jones said. 

 It’s ultimately all about a return to winning, of course, but that starts with understanding, meshing and turning first-time teammates into fast friends.

 “Everybody’s from different places and everybody has a different story for how they got here,” said guard Izaiah Brockington, who grew up in Philly and has played ball at St. Bonaventure and Penn State. “So it’s been really fun getting to know everybody. All the little activities and stuff we do, you know, you might say that they’re childish or whatever, but when you have a team like ours — that we don’t know each other, what makes each other tick, what each other likes to do and say and stuff like that? All of that stuff matters. All of the time that we can spend together is eventually going to help us on the court and just makes us closer as a team.”

 Examples of “that stuff?”

 “You’ll be like, ‘Oh, man, like we’re about to play the floor is lava? What is this gonna be like?’” Brockington said. “But (it) ended up being real fun. Dodgeball. We had a rock, paper, scissors tournament and I was like, ‘This is not gonna be hype,’ but it ended up being great fun.”

 Now, every team conducts bonding activities. Bowling. Laser tag. Pool parties. That’s been true for ISU teams that go on to win the Big 12 Tournament, or teams that finish last (and/or winless) in Big 12 play.

 Seeking cohesion doesn’t fill roster gaps, nor turn average players into good ones. Finding it, however, can ensure that each player — and the collective whole — maximizes potential.

 “We’ve been doing some little activities off the court,” said former four-star guard/forward and Kansas transfer Tristan Enaruna. “I’m in class with a couple of guys, so it’s been fun. The first week we went to T.J.’s house for a little swimming party or whatever, but it was really fun. You can see that everybody can connect with each other fairly easily, so it’s been good.”

 Whether any of this translates to better results is anyone’s guess, but it certainly can’t hurt. Sometimes “childish” games can help instill that needed sense of brotherhood — and maybe the fact that so many players are new will make that process smoother and longer-lasting.

 Who knows? There are a lot of “ifs” coming off a winless Big 12 season, but there are a lot more “can dos” and “will dos” being spoken this summer versus the last one.

“We’ve got tremendous young men in our locker room and in our program,” Otzelberger said. “And that’s something that when we started recruiting, we really wanted great people, guys who were goal-driven, work-oriented, competitive. We’ve seen that thus far in our workouts and our practices. Proud of them for that. Fortunate to be their coach. Excited to keep working with them because I know that mindset can accomplish a lot and we have big goals, things we want to do, so it’s a great building block.”