Iowa State Cyclones’ guard Gabe Kalscheur (22) drives to the basket around Texas Longhorns’ guard Andrew Jones (1) during the second half at Hilton Coliseum Saturday, Jan. 15, 2022, in Ames, Iowa
That is a team good enough to go to the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament.
That was my first thought as the clock hit zeroes on No. 15 Iowa State’s 79-70 win over No. 21 Texas on Saturday at Hilton Coliseum. The win moved Iowa State to 14-3 overall and 2-3 in Big 12 play.
The win came on an afternoon when Iowa State’s star — Izaiah Brockington — didn’t play his best game, shooting just 3-of-7 from the field and finishing with eight points and five rebounds.
On most days this season, that would’ve spelled disaster for Iowa State basketball.
Not on this day, though.
That’s because Iowa State got 22 points, including a 6-of-12 shooting performance from 3-point range, out of Gabe Kalscheur. Tyrese Hunter added 13 points and eight assists as he continues to blossom into one of the league’s best point guards.
The Cyclones’ role players combined to go 15-of-22 from the field for 36 points and made big-time plays when their number was called.
To put it simply — Iowa State played its most complete game of the season by consistently putting together solid offensive possessions and continuing its smothering defensive effort, including forcing Texas into a season-high 20 turnovers.
The Cyclones looked like a team good enough to make a Sweet 16.
“We talk a lot in our program about daily habits and work and things along those lines,” said Iowa State head coach T.J. Otzelberger. “We know that we’ve had challenges here as we started league play, we’ve played some really good teams in some really tough atmospheres in some big games. But, let’s just call it how it is. We knew we were 1-3 today and our guys had our backs against the wall in terms of we needed a win.”
The Kalscheur development is the most crucial of everything I noted before.
We’ve seen the Minnesota transfer’s high-end potential. That was put on display when he scored 30 points to lead the Cyclones to a win over Memphis earlier this year.
We’ve seen his low-end, too. That came in a loss to No. 1 Baylor a few weeks ago at Hilton Coliseum.
In the time between, we’ve seen Kalscheur’s play ride a roller coaster of up-and-down successes and failures, especially shooting the ball.
A lack of consistency setting his feet has plagued Kalscheur’s shooting this season. That lack of consistency drove his 7-of-37 shooting mark through the month of December and the team’s first three games of Big 12 play.
But, in the Cyclones’ last two games, we’ve seen Kalscheur become more deliberate in setting his feet, squaring his shoulders and launching the ball with confidence. It is a testament to the hard work he’s been putting in at the gym to perfect his craft.
The result has been going a 10-of-21 from deep in the Cyclones’ last two games, a stark contrast from his December lulls.
“I’m just feeling good about myself,” Kalscheur said postgame. “Continuing to stay the course. Just continue to stay confident with who I am and have joy with it.”
Kalscheur being able to shoot even close to as well as he has in Iowa State’s last two games elevates this team’s ceiling immensely.
Those shots are crucial to opening things up for him off the bounce to score at the rim or make plays, both of which he did an exceptional job with against Texas, plus open up lanes to the rim for his teammates.
You can see the way it has benefitted Hunter, who played the best game of his collegiate career against the Longhorns.
The 6-foot-1 freshman from Racine, Wis. controlled the game from beginning to end despite squaring off with Texas’ Marcus Carr, who was one of the best players in college basketball last season at Minnesota and was considered by many to be a preseason All-American.
Hunter’s ability as a passer continues to shine through with consistency. He’s improving as a finisher at the rim game by game and you can see his confidence growing each time he steps on the floor.
“Tyrese Hunter, that was his best college game to this point,” Otzelberger said. “He controlled the entire game, he commanded the game. He made the game go his way.”
The role player piece of this contest speaks to the comfortability everyone on Iowa State’s roster has in their roles.
They know their jobs. They know how to do their jobs. They go and execute their jobs. Night after night.
Contrast that with the Longhorns, who had 12 players appear in this game, and you’ll see one team locked into its roles with another that’s looking for guys to emerge and solidify theirs.
The comfortability and stability in roles are what make Iowa State the team it is. The lack of comfortability and stability in roles are what make Texas the team it is.
The Longhorns are a good team, don’t get me wrong, but that didn’t look like a well-oiled machine by any means on Saturday.
The Cyclones certainly have their hiccups and limitations, but they’re a machine humming along at full strength as far as each individual understanding the job they have to accomplish every night and embracing their role to the fullest extent.
“Couldn’t be more proud of our group,” Otzelberger said. “How together they were, how united, how everybody that came in the game brought something that was so impactful to winning.”
I have no idea if Iowa State is going to be a Sweet 16 team this season. There have been much more talented Iowa State teams I’ve made predictions like that about just to see it fall flat once tournament time arrives.
But, this Iowa State team, the one unanimously picked last in the Big 12 and a roster described by some as an island of misfit toys, can be a Sweet 16 team if it plays how it did on Saturday.
“I didn’t pick them last in the league, I tell you that,” said Texas head coach Chris Beard. “This deal’s got too much DNA in it here with this home court, this pride and tradition.”
I’ll let Coach Beard slide on the comment about not picking Iowa State last in the league because someone who voted in the preseason poll from the Texas contingency sure did.
His second point remains true, though. Winning is in the DNA of Iowa State basketball. It just took finding the guys with the same kind of DNA to bring it back out.
Otzelberger went out and found them from all corners of the country and most of them arrived with little to no fanfare nationally, because Iowa State was irrelevant on the national stage at that time.
They weren’t even an afterthought. They just weren’t regarded at all.
This team won’t be overlooked any longer, though.
They’re too damn good to be ignored.