As the first week of games came to a close Friday night, I left Hilton Coliseum observing fans release a sense of excitement that was not apparent prior to the game. Yes, Hilton was full as it always is, however, a pessimism existed among fans I spoke with before the season and a nervous energy was in the atmosphere.
Coming off a disappointing two-win season, the program welcomed in a new head coach but familiar face in T.J. Otzelberger. He and his staff quickly turned over the roster, bringing in six transfers. As the opening jump was upon us Friday, many I sense many did not know what to expect, myself included.
Two games is a small sample size to draw too many sweeping conclusions at the prospects of how this year will play out, but several things stand out to me.
— To begin, this team loves its coach. Someone once told me, no one cares how much you know, until they know how much you care about them. A great pearl of wisdom for any leader and something that T.J. personifies. As a result, players respond to his energy and tough love while seeking to match his no ego, blue collar mentality. Through two games, no one could dispute how hard this team competes and that is a subtle sign of the respect his players have for him.
It is worth noting that T.J. is fortunate to have three senior leaders in George Conditt, Izaiah Brockington, and Gabe Kalschuer that serve as the steady anchor for this team. In the first week of the season, this trio provided unmatched energy on both ends of the floor and are an ideal support system for budding freshmen star, Tyrese Hunter. All three seniors have a selfless, mature approach to the game. Gritty defense with continuous second and third efforts seem to be an early calling card for the Cyclones. Iowa State was able to pull off a convincing win Friday night because they relentlessly guarded for 40 minutes, won the rebounding battle, and captured the lion’s share of the 50/50 balls. That is a sign of a group that is bought-in and that begins and ends with those three seniors.
— Offensively, the Cyclones have room to grow. While I do not think this team possesses the shooting throughout its roster to win games as an offensive juggernaut like teams of recent memory, they can play winning basketball on the offensive end of the court. Look for the Cyclones to continue their emphasis on avoiding turnovers while increasing their ball reversals in the half court to free up Hunter, Brockington, and Kalschuer for opportunities to attack the paint. This will create quality 3-point attempts for themselves and others, shots in the paint, trips to the free throw line, and advantageous offensive rebounding situations. Rather than focus on the end result, the shot, look at the volume of paint touches to assess the progress on that end of the court.
— As we head into the second week of the season, I will look to see how this team handles success. They are not yet proficient enough offensively to take their foot off the gas with their energy, effort, and defense. Not that they would look to do so even if they were as I suspect that will be a non-negotiable under the T.J. Otzelberger regime. They will lean on those three areas to grind out wins while their offense continues to progress during non-conference play. If you are looking for grace and elegance, this team may struggle to satisfy your appetite. However, if blood, sweat, grit, and guts are something you can get behind, this team will be a joy to watch, and I think T.J. prefers it that way.