Kunc excited by “surreal” opportunity to play in Sweet 16

Mar 20, 2022; Milwaukee, WI, USA; Iowa State Cyclones forward Aljaz Kunc (5) and Iowa State Cyclones guard Tristan Enaruna (23) celebrate the win against the Wisconsin Badgers 54-49 in the second round of the 2022 NCAA Tournament at Fiserv Forum. Mandatory Credit: Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports

CHICAGO — Friday night’s Sweet 16 battle with Miami will be special for Iowa State’s Aljaz Kunc for numerous reasons.

For one, the senior from Ljubljana, Slovenia, will join an exclusive club of Slovenians to play this deep into the NCAA Tournament. That fact means something to Kunc, who is playing in “The Big Dance” for the first time after spending three seasons at Washington State.

The game will be another opportunity for his parents — Andrej and Karmen — to watch him play the game he loves from their home in Slovenia.

Projected tip-time in Slovenia: 4:59 a.m.

“Their support has been amazing for me,” Kunc said on Thursday in the Windy City. “They call me before and after every game even if it’s like 4 a.m. back home… They’re super excited. It’s a one once in a lifetime opportunity.”

It will be especially surreal for Kunc when you consider the venue this game will be played in. Chicago’s United Center is called “The House Mike Built,” for a reason.

It became world-renowned as Michael Jordan dominated the NBA in the 1990s. The building became even more recognizable around the globe once Croatian Toni Kukoc joined the franchise in the middle of their decade of dominance.

It means something to someone from that part of the world to play in this building.

“My dad grew up watching the Bulls, and for me to play in the same arena now, it seems surreal to him,” Kunc said. “I grew up watching Toni’s highlights. I feel like a lot of players from that area, Serbia, Bosnia, the ex-Yugoslavia area, made it big in the league, and those are not just mine, but, everyone’s aspirations when we were growing up. We were looking up to them. It feels surreal to me, as well, to play on the same court as the greatest players who ever played. It’s an amazing honor for us to be here. But, we didn’t come here to have fun or whatever. We got two games, and we plan on winning both.”

That last line speaks to Kunc’s mentality at basically every moment. Sure, all of this is cool, but he’s here to compete.

He’s here to win.

There wasn’t much of that included in the first three years of his college career, and he doesn’t intend to waste the opportunities left to chase the dream of winning a national title.

That desire to win was on display during last week’s pair of wins over LSU and Wisconsin. It was clear during the team’s undefeated run through the non-conference portion of the schedule, which also included the program’s win over Iowa — the first game his parents were able to attend at Hilton Coliseum.

“Obviously, basketball is big back home, but the atmosphere and the environment, the electricity in the building, it’s something they hadn’t experienced before,” Kunc said. “It was crazy. It was crazy for me to play in because I’ve never played a game like that. But, it was also crazy for them to witness that in person.”

Kunc will play a crucial role in anything that happens for Iowa State this weekend in Chicago, but everyone who has interacted with or seen him play knows he’ll do anything he can to impact winning.

Especially if a couple of wins mean his parents could watch him play on an even bigger stage.

“If we do make it to (the Final Four in) New Orleans, we’re gonna figure something out. We’re going to try to get them here,” Kunc said with a smile before turning serious once again. “But, game by game.”

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.