Izaiah Brockington brings the ball down the court in Iowa State’s 60-50 win over Oregon State at Hilton Coliseum. (Jacqueline Cordova/Cyclone Fanatic)
AMES — Iowa State men’s basketball has cleared the first hurdle.
The Cyclones are fun again. That fact became blatantly clear during Iowa State’s 60-50 win over Oregon State on Friday, which moved the program to 2-0 under new head coach T.J. Otzelberger.
There was no avoiding the size of rebuild Otzelberger was undertaking when he was hired as the program’s head coach last spring. There are many hurdles to get over as the program strives to return to the former glory found last decade, but they cleared a major one in the win over the Beavers.
Iowa State men’s basketball proved something against Oregon State and they did it by playing smothering defense, diving on the floor after loose balls and playing with a reckless abandon we haven’t seen from the home team at Hilton Coliseum in many, many years.
Those factors all add up to mean one thing — Iowa State men’s basketball is fun again.
“We preach daily habits in our program and how you do anything is how you do everything,” Otzelberger said. “We talked about coming in here and building this with intensity defensively, pressuring the basketball, really guarding the dribble, flying around taking charges, diving for loose balls. That’s to me what Cyclone basketball is and will be moving forward.”
There was no bigger objective for Otzelberger in this first year than finding a way to reengage a fanbase that had become somewhat apathetic about its basketball program in the latter years of Steve Prohm’s tenure.
A poor product on the hardwood and an outstanding product on the gridiron had pushed Cyclone men’s basketball into an abnormal backseat position. Fan engagement was as low as it has been in more than a decade and, frankly, people just really didn’t know if they should care about basketball at Iowa State.
That was before Otzelberger reshaped the roster with transfers, locked down a four-star point guard from Wisconsin that committed to the previous staff and set to work rebuilding one of the school’s proudest programs.
Two of those transfers — Gabe Kalscheur and Izaiah Brockington — have already started doing their part in helping restore Iowa State basketball.
Kalscheur, who spent his first three college seasons at Minnesota, scored 15 points on 6-of-17 shooting and dished four assists against Oregon State. Brockington, a Penn State transfer, added 10 points on 4-of-12 from the field and added 12 rebounds for his first double-double in an Iowa State uniform.
That duo has set the tone for what Iowa State does on a daily basis in practice and thus what they do on the floor when the lights are on. They’re both multi-dimensional offensively, but their tenacity on the defensive end is what sets them apart.
Their work on the defensive end of the floor is what will endear them to this Iowa State team. Their teammates have taken notice, elevating their own games in that area, allowing the Cyclones to hold Oregon State to just 34 percent shooting from the field and 14 percent shooting from behind the 3-point line.
“These two guys (Kalscheur and Brockington), as much as any came into this program, wanting a special experience and wanting to instill those habits on a daily basis,” Otzelberger said. “When you’re going to hold teams to 33, 34 percent from the field, you’re gonna have success a lot of nights.”
The next biggest factor in Iowa State’s return to fun status is the true freshman point guard, Tyrese Hunter, the one-time Steve Prohm commit who elected to stick with the Cyclones once Otzelberger took the reins.
He’s a true freshman that plays like a senior. His head coach says he acts like one, too.
You can see it come through on the floor. He scored nine points, dished seven assists and grabbed two rebounds in his second collegiate game. You’d prefer to not see him turn the ball over five times, but, even if he might act like a senior, he’s still just a freshman.
“What I love about Tyrese Hunter, is he came in as a freshman, and he acted like a senior. When you have a guy with that degree of maturity, who cares and competes every single day like he does, I mean, he was 17 when he got here this summer, and he’s such a competitor,” Otzelberger said. “He’s such a winner and he’s so tough. I’ve been fortunate to coach guys that have some of those same attributes. Those are the type of guys that make you win a lot of games for a lot of years.”
This Iowa State team is everything the last few Cyclone teams weren’t. They defend with an edge and physicality that the program has lacked for quite some time. They share the ball offensively and work to execute their game plan without relying on constant isolation.
Don’t get me wrong, this team will remain at a talent disadvantage for the majority of the year, especially offensively. The Cyclones shot just 44 percent from the field and 27 percent from 3-point range while turning the ball over 19 times.
Those things are probably going to be here for the entirety of Otzelberger’s first season. Still, fans can expect this team to give themselves a chance on any given night simply with their ability and desire to defend.
The desire to defend is the equalizer. It is the thing that sets great teams apart from good ones and allows less talented teams to even the playing field against more talent-rich squads.
I don’t need to tell you that, though. We’ve seen those facts manifest themselves constantly over the last decade. Even when the Cyclones were really good in the mid-2010s, they would ultimately run into teams with a greater commitment to the defensive end than them and watch it end with disastrous results.
This is the type of thing that allowed Chris Beard to flip Texas Tech from Big 12 bottom-dweller to Final Four program in just a few years. Beard set the tone with the program’s commitment to defense then found high-level players who would buy into it to turn the Red Raiders into a consistent contender at the top of the league.
Otz seems to be following a similar formula and it is one that should leave Iowa State fans feeling like the program’s lean years could be ending sooner rather than later.
“I know that fans here appreciate toughness, competitiveness, leaving it on the floor and giving your all and that’s what those young men did tonight,” Otzelberger said. “Certainly wasn’t our masterpiece. We’ve got a lot of things to get better at, but we’re hopeful that it’s a team effort. As we continue to play at a high-level and ultra-competitive basketball with toughness and aggressiveness, that it’s going to get our fans excited. It’s going to make Hilton the place that I know it is where nobody wants to come to play here because it’s the best venue in college basketball.”
I have no idea how many games this team is going to win this season. Their performance on Friday leaves me thinking it could be more than most people expected coming in.
Those things will work themselves out, though. The Cyclones will still have an advantage over a lot of the teams its plays and that advantage is called Hilton Coliseum.
Getting that advantage back required getting over the first hurdle though. These Cyclones needed to show their fanbase they’d have a reason to cheer if they showed up to fill Hilton Coliseum.
Iowa State needed to prove it could be fun again sooner rather than later.
On Friday night against Oregon State, they did just that.