STANZ: Art of the “kill”

Tre Jackson dives for a loose ball during Iowa State’s 67-50 win over Missouri. Photo by Connor Ferguson for Cyclone Fanatic.

AMES — “Kill, kill, kill…”

On Saturday, the chant rained down from the rafters at Hilton Coliseum as Missouri set up its offense in the halfcourt. To the uninformed, it surely sounded odd hearing 13,612 people chanting the word in unison.

To the Iowa State men’s basketball team, it served as motivation. Motivation to get a third-straight stop on the defensive end. Motivation to earn what folks inside the program have named a “kill.”

The Cyclones got a stop. The student section hung a big gold X on the railing behind the baseline, right where the Cyclone defenders can see it every time they’re on the opposite end.

Hang another of those X’s, and the game is undoubtedly going Iowa State’s way. This one certainly did as the Cyclones rolled past Missouri with a 67-50 win in the Big 12/SEC Challenge, moving the team to 16-5 on the year.

Those big gold X’s? By the time the clock hit zeroes, nine of them hung from the front of Cyclone Alley. That’s nine kills, 27 stops strung together throughout the game.

Missouri had 59 possessions in the entire game. The Tigers scored on 23 of them. The other 36 resulted in Iowa State stops, and 27 of them were in strings of three.

That, my friends, is a winning formula. That is Iowa State basketball in 2021-22.

“It’s something that we’ve talked about,” Iowa State head coach T.J. Otzelberger said about the “kill” counting postgame. “I think what happened is we’re yelling on the bench. We want three stops in a row. Every additional stop, we continue yelling it. What happens is, over time, people hear what we’re yelling, and I think it’s kind of caught on. We appreciate our fans’ energy and enthusiasm. It’s great to have the students in there. Every team has an identity, and our identity is stringing together and stacking up defensive stops.”

The art of the kill starts with ball pressure.

We all know Iowa State has been elite in that area for most of the season. They were again in this game while forcing 18 turnovers and keeping Mizzou in a constant state of disorganization offensively.

The Tigers made some shots, especially early, but few of them came easy.

Bring the ball towards the floor, and it is liable to end up headed the other way. Start getting loose with the basketball, and it is susceptible to end up headed the other way.

Let Tre Jackson poke the ball away from you, and Caleb Grill will be there to dive on top of it — then throw a backward over the head pass to a streaking Robert Jones for a transition dunk.

I mean, what the hell? We’ve rarely seen Iowa State teams make plays like that in recent years. We see it time-and-time-again from this one.

It is what their basketball minds have been programmed to do.

They’re programmed to kill.

“We really talk about making effort-based plays where we’re diving for loose balls, getting on the floor,” Otzelberger said. “The game rewards you when you do that. Caleb making that play leads to another good play. That’s a huge energy play for our team. It was obviously a terrific play, got the crowd going even more. Those are the type of plays that we demand our guys make and we need to continue to make to be successful.”

Those kills lead to run-outs or easier opportunities against an unset defense. We all know how Iowa State’s offense has looked against set defenses over the last few weeks. The only thing pretty about it is its propensity to end in Izaiah Brockington’s contested mid-range jumpers.

Even that beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

Iowa State was far from perfect offensively against the Tigers. The Cyclones shot too many 3-pointers in the first half, again, going 1-of-10 from deep before the intermission.

The offensive purpose this team showed in Stillwater on Wednesday was nowhere to be found, and the Cyclones shot 10-of-29 from the field during the first 20 minutes as a result.

Then, in the second half, the kills started to come. Iowa State’s offense arrived along with them.

The Cyclones turned a three-point halftime lead into an 18-point margin with a 23-8 run to start the second half. After halftime, they out-scored Missouri 35-21, shooting 58.3 percent from the field and 5-of-8 from deep.

Meanwhile, Missouri shot 7-of-22 from the field in the second half and 2-of-7 from 3-point range. The Tigers scored only four points in the paint to give them 12 for the entire game.

Iowa State scored 32 points in the painted area and had 16 in each half. The points close to the rim resulted from playing downhill towards the basket.

Brockington was in attack mode, scoring 15 points on the afternoon, while Tyrese Hunter continued putting his improved finishing through contact at the rim capability on display with 14 points on 7-of-12 shooting.

Hunter added four assists and two steals while playing his first game without recording a turnover.

Aljaz Kunc broke out of his recent shooting slump to finish with 11 points and 3-of-5 from deep. All three of his makes came from possessions that included a paint touch.

Stack stops, play downhill and play with purpose. Accomplish those three goals, and Iowa State can hang the only letter better than those big gold X’s.

That letter, of course, being W.

“I feel like we picked it up defensively (in the second half), and then defense led to offense,” Kunc said. “On offense, we were patient, we were looking for a great shot, and we knocked them down, especially as we turned them over at times.”

Those three goals must be on the top of every Iowa State player’s minds as the team prepares to attack the second half of its Big 12 schedule.

The Cyclones have already put themselves in a position to make their first NCAA Tournament since 2019, but this team can’t allow itself to repeat that 2018-19 team’s mistakes.

Everything was sailing smoothly for that squad as they were ranked in the top-12 nationally on KenPom. They were a trendy Final Four pick and believed to be among the most talented teams in the country.

Then, everything fell apart. The locker room grew contentious. The offense stopped attacking, and the defense struggled to get stops consistently. The only thing consistent about them was their inconsistency.

The result was six losses in the team’s final eight games. They went from 18-5 on Feb. 11 to 20-11 on March 9, primarily because they lost track of themselves and what made them great during their first 23 games.

They briefly found it again in Kansas City, winning three games in three days to bring home the trophy, but we all remember what happened next as the inconsistency reared its head and the issues that plagued the program during the season’s final month came to roost.

This team can’t allow those things to happen. For one, they’re not as talented as that squad was, and that significantly decreases their margin of error.

Mostly, there’s just not a trophy for developing an identity through January. Nobody remembers the teams that fizzle out. Everybody remembers the teams that continue to get better day-after-day and game-after-game.

This team still has so much room to improve. They have their identity, but they still stray from it too much. Stack stops, attack downhill and play with purpose.

Focus on the art of the kill, and the rest will fall into place.

“We just want the guys to be mindful of how important it is to get a stop every single time down,” Otzelberger said. “Man, I’m proud of our guys because when they put their focus, effort and energy into that, they can be really good at it.”

Jared Stansbury


Jared a native of Clarinda, Iowa, started as the Cyclone Fanatic intern in August 2013, primarily working as a videographer until starting on the women’s basketball beat prior to the 2014-15 season. Upon earning his Bachelor’s degree in Journalism and Mass Communication from Iowa State in May 2016, Jared was hired as the site’s full-time staff writer, taking over as the primary day-to-day reporter on football and men’s basketball. He was elevated to the position of managing editor in January 2020. He is a regular contributor on 1460 KXNO in Des Moines and makes regular guest appearances on radio stations across the Midwest. Jared resides in Ankeny with his four-year-old puggle, Lolo.