The Grill is burning at its highest heat setting.
Iowa State moved to 11-0 for the second time in program history on Sunday with a 77-54 win over Southeastern Louisiana behind 20 points from Caleb Grill.
The junior from Wichita played his best game in an Iowa State uniform, shooting 7-of-11 from the field and 6-of-10 from 3-point range, while adding five rebounds and five assists, off the bench.
That performance followed a two-game stretch in which Grill wasn’t overly involved in the Cyclones’ offensive attack, scoring zero points in back-to-back wins over Iowa and Jackson State. This was closer to the version of Grill we saw in Iowa State’s win over Creighton in which he scored 16 points and went 4-of-4 from deep.
He was especially great in the second half, knocking down 4-of-6 from deep, as Iowa State was able to turn a seven-point halftime lead into a dominant 23-point victory by shooting 77 percent from the field and 7-of-12 from 3-point range after the break.
“We came out today without the energy that we probably would’ve liked to have,” Iowa State head coach TJ Otzelberger said. “But, I’m proud of our team and our guys for digging in, and in that second half, we played with a lot more energy and resiliency. We shared the basketball and we played for one another. You’re going to have to find ways to win games when things don’t go exactly as you want. I felt like our guys stepped up in that second half and really allowed us to separate and come out with the win.”
Continuing to get Grill, and senior forward Aljaz Kunc, involved in the offense needs to be a priority for Iowa State as it approaches the start of Big 12 play, and a date with defending national champion Baylor, on Jan. 1.
It would be hard to argue at this point that Iowa State’s best basketball isn’t played when those two are on the court. Kunc scored 14 points on 4-of-7 shooting from the field and 3-of-3 from deep in the win.
Grill and Kunc have emerged as Iowa State’s two most consistent threats from behind the 3-point line by shooting 45 percent and 56 percent, respectively, through the season to this point. The ball moves better offensively when they’re in the game and the defense that has become this team’s calling card doesn’t fall off in the slightest.
The two highest offensive efficiency ratings on the team belong to Kunc and Grill. Kunc is No. 4 nationally in the metric. Grill is No. 51.
Yet, they remain the two rotation regulars with the lowest usage rates, which speaks to their unselfishness, but exemplifies the opportunity to create more open looks for them offensively.
“I hit a couple in the first half so I was feeling good in the second half,” Grill said. “Just taking the right shots. Credit to my teammates. They were helping me get open looks, looking for me throughout the offense so credit to them for getting me the open shots. They get all the credit. I just get all the glory for making the shot.”
Getting those two more involved will not come at the expense of anybody on Iowa State’s roster because of their top-to-bottom unselfishness. This simply isn’t a group that seems overly concerned with the number of shots they’re getting or whether or not they’re being highlighted by the offense.
That general nature is what has allowed Grill and Kunc to thrive by simply taking what comes to them. They don’t do anything flashy that will have people sprinting to cut the highlights and share them on social media, but they make winning basketball plays time-after-time.
The duo thrives alongside Izaiah Brockington‘s downhill approach and they open up lanes for Brockington to attack the basket. The transfer from Penn State was outstanding again on Sunday, notching his fifth double-double of the year, with 17 points on 7-of-12 shooting and 11 rebounds.
They create more chances for Tyrese Hunter to attack the lane and kick out to open shooters. Gabe Kalscheur is allowed more openings for looks with less defensive pressure shifted his way. George Conditt and Robert Jones are allowed more room to operate in the lane with fewer bodies to battle on the glass.
Simply put, Iowa State’s basketball team is at its best when Caleb Grill and Aljaz Kunc are on the floor, and figuring out a way to get them on the floor together as often as possible without throwing off the team’s dynamic feels paramount with the season’s biggest tests fast approaching.
“We trusted our offense and trusted ourselves and Caleb was hitting,” Brockington said. “We had guys that stepped up and made big threes. That really gave us momentum and helped spread the floor out, get easier paint touches, which led to a higher percentage.”
Iowa State is still slated to have one more non-conference game on Tuesday before the Big 12 schedule heats up. That game could be in jeopardy though as Chicago State’s scheduled contest with Drake on Sunday was canceled due to COVID-19 cases within the CSU program.
The Cyclones could really use that game — or any potential game — to further work out the kinks on offense before Scott Drew’s Bears roll into Hilton Coliseum.
At that point, the tests will only become increasingly difficult.
Continuing to keep their dynamic duo of bench energy involved in every facet of the game could make those tests significantly easier to pass.
All someone has to do is watch the second half of this win over Southeastern Louisiana to know Iowa State plays its best basketball when the Grill is firing up and “Smooth Jazz” is the soundtrack.
“We preach to everybody on our team that when they come into the game, they need to make an instant impact,” Otzelberger said. “For each player, that’s something different. It always requires a lot of effort, ball pressure and rebounding effort, but, specifically for Jaz and Caleb, you see the confidence they shoot the basketball with and that gives us a different look offensively. It’s really important to our team that they continue to stay in that rhythm. That their teammates look for them. That they hunt those shots.”
“I’ve got a lot of confidence in our other guys to shoot the basketball, as well, but, right now, those guys both have a good rhythm. They certainly did today and we’ve got to continue to play to the strengths of our team.”