As we sit just two days away from the start of Big 12 conference play, I would like to pause to do two things before the league gauntlet begins.
First, I want to acknowledge what I believe is the most impressive accomplishment for Iowa State thus far, and, second, consider how they can build on that accomplishment.
Let us begin with what has been accomplished.
Iowa State basketball has established a stable foundational identity under head coach T.J. Otzelberger.
Often, when a coach takes over a program in disarray, he or she gets one opportunity to reset the culture and identity.
If they are to restore a winning culture and identity, this can serve as the launchpad for years to come.
If they fail in this endeavor, it is nearly impossible to alter in later years.
Players are observant and will push coaches on what will and will not be tolerated. Once substandard habits are viewed as tolerable, that precedent has been established for future recruits.
For example, consider a great basketball mind like Greg McDermott.
He flourished at Northern Iowa, struggled mightily at Iowa State, and then again found success at Creighton. Why?
While there is more than one factor for his success and struggles at each program, I think it is fair to say he did not forget how to coach upon his arrival to Ames (nor did he lack talent).
The point I am making is not to call out Coach McDermott, whom I admire and respect as a person and coach, but to point out that no matter how great of a tactical mind a coach may have, if they fail in establishing winning habits early, even the best of coaches can lose their way.
Fortunately, T.J. has thrived in this element of rebuilding the Iowa State program.
The Cyclones are not just off to a 12-0 start but have paved a foundation within the program that new recruits will be expected to adapt to.
In my view, this is T.J.’s most impressive accomplishment and why he deserves to be in the conversation for National Coach of the Year at the calendar’s turn.
Now we can entertain what can be accomplished as we enter Big 12 play.
It would be easy to talk about an NCAA tournament bid, contending in the Big 12, and landmark victories like the one they will pursue on Jan. 1 against the No. 1 and defending national champion Baylor Bears.
All of these are important and attainable.
However, what we should keep in mind is how they maintain the accomplishment noted above.
I tend to be an optimistic person, but even I will admit that one can essentially guarantee this team is going to face a new degree of adversity in the coming months.
The Big 12 will be a gauntlet and it is very likely all ten teams will incur multiple losses.
How this team responds to setbacks will define their NCAA tournament future and, ultimately, determine just how successful this year ends up being.
Culture is many things. Most notably, culture is how you respond when your game plan experiences setbacks.
Thus far, this team has tackled any in-game adversity admirably.
I expect them to respond accordingly as we get into league play.
However, we will not know until the time comes.
Defense, rebounding, and loose ball pursuit are part of this program’s calling card.
Keep a close eye on all three of those elements of play, especially if the going starts to get tough — and it most certainly will. This is the best basketball league in America, after all.