Mar 11, 2021; Las Vegas, Nevada, USA; Utah State Aggies guard Marco Anthony (44) goes to the basket while defended by UNLV Rebels guard Caleb Grill (3) during the first half at the Thomas & Mack Center. Mandatory Credit: Orlando Ramirez-USA TODAY Sports
AMES — Caleb Grill completed his workout, heaved a deep breath, then said hello to the college coach who’d journeyed to Maize, Kansas to see him.
That man — then-South Dakota State head coach T.J. Otzelberger — made quite an impression on the junior-to-be and future Kansas Male Athlete of the Year.
So much so that Grill eventually committed to being a Jackrabbit, until fate took a hand.
Otzelberger took the top job at UNLV. Grill had to decide whether to follow the coach he trusted, or pursue his dreams.
You see, the big-time athlete from small-town Kansas had always been an Iowa State fan, so he followed his heart to Ames.
One season later, he was with Otzelberger at UNLV, and now, of course, they’re both back at Iowa State — a place and a program they both love, but what a whirlwind journey it’s been.
“It’s been crazy for sure,” Grill said during the Cyclones’ annual media day gathering on Wednesday. “Following T.J. has been big for me, just because of the trust I have in him. I’m just really looking forward to what’s next here. Just seeing what the future holds for both of us.”
And for the Cyclones, who are coming off a winless Big 12 season and retooling with old-turned-new players such as Grill, along with holdovers and former teammates Tre Jackson and George Conditt, sprinkled among an array of talented newcomers.
Just what does that immediate future hold for this intriguing bunch?
Best to take the long view, but it’s that trust that Grill spoke of that’s the binding agent for ISU’s program going forward. Trust in themselves. Trust in each other. Trust in Otzelberger and his staff.
“Once I started to meet other coaches and visit other places, I just realized how much of a different connection that me and T.J. had with one another,” said Grill, who led UNLV in minutes played last season and started every game. “And just how much time he invested in me. I think that’s why our bond is really (strong) with one another and I think that’s still why it’s close today.”
Grill played with maximum effort during the 2019-20 season with the Cyclones but struggled to find consistency on the offensive end. That started to show during his one-season stint in Vegas, but it’s precisely because he shines in every non-quantifiable area of the game — grit, savvy, commitment — that he’s such a valuable re-addition to ISU’s program.
“Where we’ve seen the most growth and progress, even from a season ago when I coached him, is the poise that he’s playing with, the confidence that he’s playing with,” Otzelberger said. “It’s not just shooting the basketball. Certainly, that’s a part of his game. It’s (that) he is a tremendous ball mover. A guy that really cares about taking care of the basketball. Somebody that plays with tremendous defensive effort and energy. He’s a team guy. He’s a winner.”
Grill will carve out time among a deep backcourt for the Cyclones that includes fellow transfers Izaiah Brockington (Penn State) and Gabe Kalscheur (Minnesota), along with Jackson, Jaden Walker and highly-touted true freshman point guard Tyrese Hunter.
Jackson, for one, is happy Grill is back.
“I’m happy for him wherever he’s at,” said Jackson, a fellow Class of 2019 ISU recruit. “Right now, I’m happy he’s with us and he’s gonna be a big part of our team.”
Walker, who showed promise as a freshman last season, said Grill fits perfectly — and perhaps personifies — the culture Otzelberger is seeking to instill in the program.
“Like, he can shoot that thing and when he gets hot, it’s crazy,” Walker said. “He’s a great teammate. He brings everything. I just love playing with him.”
And Grill’s back with the team he loved growing up.
He found it hard to pick a favorite memory from his ISU fandom. The Big 12 Tournament wins ranked high. So did the Sweet 16 appearances. One stood out slightly from the rest, though.
“The (2015) Iowa comeback in Hilton,” Grill said. “I think that was Georges Niang’s senior year. Those are some of my favorite memories.”
Otzelberger, of course, was a Cyclones assistant at the time. So he, like Grill, is restarting at the place closest to his heart: Hilton Coliseum.
“I’ll always have a soft spot in my heart for somebody who grew up wanting to be a Cyclone,” Otzelberger said. “(He) watched this team. Cares about this program. We need to have more and more of those guys because those are the guys who when the chips are down you can count on. And certainly, based off playing time last year with me, Caleb led us in minutes played, so it shows the degree of confidence that I have (in him).”
There’s nothing “soft” about Otzelberger’s (or Grill’s) approach to the game, however. It’s hard-nosed. It’s built on defense and designed to curry confidence. So “fire up the grill” as CF Publisher Chris Williams has incessantly tweeted for the two-time Cyclone Caleb Grill. Rest assured he’s taken notice of those social media posts and plans to put in the work that can make them go viral.
“It’s cool to see people supporting you out there,” Grill said.
No college coach has supported Grill more than Otzelberger. He gave him multiple opportunities and both have benefitted from the bond created years ago after that workout in Maize. Now it’s ISU’s turn to reap those rewards … again.
“The biggest thing that I’ve seen in him is maturity,” said ISU assistant Daniyal Robinson, who helped coach Grill during his rookie season stint as a Cyclone. “Obviously, when we recruited him it was late, and coach T.J. had just left South Dakota State, so he got out of his letter. Iowa State was a place that he grew up admiring, so it was a speed recruit. Great family, great kid. And he came in and worked really hard, but he had to get used to this level — and doing it every day, (since he was a) four-sport athlete in high school. So just being totally committed to basketball was different for him. But what I’ve seen in him since he’s been back is a level of consistent effort. He knows what he is now and he plays with a lot more confidence. Those are the things that excite me about him.”