Iowa State University Cyclones center Osun Osunniyi (21) reacts after a dunk against Milwaukee during the first half at Hilton Coliseum Sunday, Nov. 20, 2022, in Ames, Iowa. Photo by Nirmalendu Majumdar/Ames Tribune
PORTLAND — Osun Osunniyi knew the ball was coming his way as Iowa State broke the huddle with 43 seconds on the clock and a two-point lead over Villanova in overtime on Thursday in Portland.
The 6-foot-10 transfer center from St. Bonaventure backed his way into the post, his defender flopped backward, he pivoted through and laid the ball off the glass uncontested with 36 seconds left.
Villanova’s Caleb Daniels drove baseline towards Osunniyi on the following possession, and Daniels’ baseline floater nearly found its way into the seats when the two-time Atlantic 10 Defensive Player of the Year swatted it away.
Seconds later, Iowa State’s freshman point guard Tamin Lipsey made an over-the-shoulder steal and was fouled right away. He calmly stepped to the line and knocked down four straight free throws to ice the basketball game.
Those free throws to seal the deal were big, especially when you consider Iowa State blew a 16-point second-half lead and still seemed to have the game under control at the under-four timeout before the contest still somehow found its way into overtime.
There was a lot that happened on Thursday in Portland, but it all swung fully Iowa State’s way for good as Osunniyi stepped out of the huddle knowing the ball was coming his way.
“(The coaches) just gave me the confidence to go get a bucket,” Osunniyi said recalling that timeout late in overtime. “We work every single day. They trust me every single day. They call plays for me. They have trust in me. That helps me go out and do what I do.”
Iowa State made a significant and concerted effort to work the ball into the post against the Wildcats. With Villanova switching all screens, Otzelberger and his staff felt they could get some favorable matchups for Osunniyi and Robert Jones.
They were right.
The pair each scored in double figures with Osunniyi tallying an efficient 17 points on 8-of-10 from the field with five rebounds while Jones posted 10 points and five boards.
Both players finished strong at the rim and didn’t shy away from finishing over the top of smaller defenders. This is a trend that speaks to one of the biggest ways in which this team will differ from last year’s squad.
Through five games, Iowa State is shooting 56 percent on two-point shots, a nearly six percentage points improvement from last year’s team that ranked somewhere in the mid-150s in that statistic.
This year’s team is in the top 50 at this point.
So, while this team probably won’t have many nights when it is tearing the cover off the ball shooting from deep, it will be much more efficient and consistent around the rim.
Iowa State shot 8-of-28 from 3-point range against Villanova, including a 5-of-15 from deep split for Gabe Kalscheur that felt way more efficient in the moment than the stat sheet would indicate.
The Cyclones needed all five of those Kalscheur 3-pointers in order to win this game, but it was the ability to create turnovers defensively, force Villanova into tough shots when they didn’t turn it over then finish around the rim over the top of favorable match-ups that actually won the Cyclones this game.
“We talked in our preparation a lot about going into the post and really being stubborn,” head coach T.J. Otzelberger said. “If they’re gonna play us one on one, our guys need to trust in themselves, continue to get depth in the post, use their dribble, get the ball to the goal, and then finish a play. Osun has done a phenomenal job of that. Certainly, no bigger basket at that point in the game. So something we emphasized, something we talked about and it’s great to see our guys execute down the stretch.”
There will be a different kind of challenge coming for Osunniyi, Jones and VCU transfer forward Hason Ward, who scored four points against Villanova, on Friday when Iowa State lines up across from No. `1 North Carolina.
Perhaps no player in college basketball benefitted more from last year’s NCAA Tournament than Armando Bacot. He became the first player in NCAA Tournament history to record six straight double-doubles.
That success propelled his team to a national runner-up finish, and pushed him into college hoops superstardom, earning significant paychecks through NIL, earning preseason All-American honors and even picking up a guest star role in hit Netflix teen drama Outer Banks.
Bacot’s return to Chapel Hill, along with veteran guards Caleb Love and RJ Davis, plus Northwestern transfer forward Pete Nance, make the Tar Heels one of the favorites to run the table this season.
Hubert Davis’ team has been vulnerable to this point, though, and was pushed to the brink by Portland on Thursday in their first-round match-up.
Bacot quietly posted 11 points and 13 rebounds, but it was Nance who led the way for Carolina by scoring 28 points, going 5-of-8 from 3-point range and grabbing seven rebounds in his baby blue breakout.
Those two players will put Iowa State’s new-look frontcourt to its first real test with Osunniyi going head-to-head with Bacot as the headliner.
“He’s one of the best bigs in the country,” Osunniyi said. “It’s gonna be fun. I’m looking forward to the challenge. We’re gonna go back to a hotel today and get some gameplan ready, but I’m looking forward to the challenge.”
Osunniyi came to Iowa State with the goal of showcasing his abilities in order to improve his professional stock. That requires playing against the best college basketball has to offer.
If you want to prove you’re the best defensive big man in college basketball and deserve to be in that best big man in college hoops discussion, who better to prove it against than one of college basketball’s best big men on a big stage in an NBA arena?
“I’ve got tremendous confidence in our frontline guys,” Otzelberger said. “I know that they’re a program that traditionally has played two frontline guys and likes to go inside, as well. I know our guys will be up for the challenge and we’re excited to get out there tomorrow because we’re gonna go inside and we have confidence and belief in our guys. They’ll go in, we’ll go in and we’ll see what happens.”