Iowa State Head Coach T.J. Otzelberger talks with a player during their game against LSU Friday, March 18, 2022, in Milwaukee. Iowa State defeated LSU 59-54.
KANSAS CITY — After Iowa State lost one of its key pieces ahead of the 2022-23 men’s basketball season, the coaching staff is starting to reassemble the pieces of this year’s puzzle.
A wrench was thrown in T.J. Otzelberger and his staff’s process when Temple transfer guard Jeremiah Williams was lost for the year with an Achilles tear earlier this month.
The Cyclones have spent the weeks that followed working through different lineup combinations and possibilities ahead of the program’s season opener on Nov. 7 against IUPUI at Hilton Coliseum.
“We’ve been looking at a lot of different options with Jeremiah out,” Otzelberger said on Wednesday at Big 12 men’s basketball media day in Kansas City. “Certainly, talked a lot about Tamin (Lipsey) and Eli (King). We’ve given some opportunity to Jaren (Holmes) as well at that spot, just trying to find the right mix and blend and combinations and rotations.”
While point guard might not be Holmes’ natural position, he’s played the spot before at the collegiate level. He’s also already emerged as a leader within the program and has the ability to bring people together on and off the court.
Lipsey and King still seem like the odds-on favorites to play the majority of the minutes at that position, but having Holmes available as an option is encouraging when you’re facing the possibility of playing 40 minutes a night with a true freshman running the point.
“I’m familiar with it. I’m comfortable with it,” Holmes said when asked about playing point guard on Wednesday. “It’s not my natural position, but I’ll do whatever it takes to help the team.”
Another possibility that has come under consideration is the chance for Iowa State to play big in some scenarios. That means having St. Bonaventure transfer center Osun Osunniyi and VCU transfer forward Hason Ward together in the frontcourt with returning veteran Aljaz Kunc sliding to the wing alongside perhaps Holmes and veteran guard Gabe Kalscheur in the backcourt.
Kunc’s return for a second season with the program does bring some flexibility to the frontcourt where he was on the smaller end battling with Big 12 centers and power forwards last season. His ability to stretch the defense as a shooter is certainly the key piece of this equation.
Kunc shot a career-high 38.9 percent from 3-point range last year in his first season as a Cyclone.
“(Kunc has) been a good shooter throughout the course of his career,” Otzelberger said. “You still have some of the spacing dynamics there. Allows you the opportunity, when you look at Ward, Osunniyi and (Robert) Jones, to have two of those guys on the floor if we want to go that way.”
The possibility of playing big is boosted by the addition of freshman guard Demarion Watson, who is flexible positionally with long arms and a 6-foot-6 frame that gives him an opportunity to play as a true traditional wing.
“Demarion Watson’s another option as a bigger wing that could come in and give us some more size in a bigger lineup,” Otzelberger said. “Right now, just trying a lot of different things with Jeremiah being out and figuring out what might be best.”
What will impact the final lineup decisions?
It’s all about finding balance for Otzelberger and his staff. It is also about helping certain groups find a particular identity together as they start to come together on the court.
One lineup might take a considerable amount of pride in defending and what happens on the court could reflect that. Another might be a little bit more offensive driven with the possibility of creating more opportunities on that end.
In the end, it is about finding that balance and putting the puzzle pieces together in the best fit possible.
“For lineups to be successful, I think they have to have an identity as a group,” Otzelberger said. “There has to be some balance there. Now, we have a fair amount of guys on our team that have proven to be, through their college career, really good defensive players, whether it is Jones or Kalscheur with us or Osun or Hason at the places they’ve been. They may play better when they’re defending, may help them offensively. I really would say balance and yet still having an identity of what can this group be really good at still while being balanced offensively and defensively.”