Iowa State University Cyclones center Osun Osunniyi (21) goes for a dunk against St. Johns during the first half at Hilton Coliseum Sunday, Dec. 4, 2022, in Ames, Iowa. Photo by Nirmalendu Majumdar/Ames Tribune
AMES — Iowa State never trailed.
Iowa State and St. John’s were never even tied on the scoreboard after the game’s opening bucket erased the 0-0 start. The Cyclones took a 2-0 lead when Osun Osunniyi slammed one home 71 seconds into the game on Sunday at Hilton Coliseum.
Consider that bucket the game-winning score, because St. John’s hardly even threatened from there as Iowa State ran away with a 71-60 win in the Big 12/Big East Battle that was not as close as the score indicates.
Iowa State was tougher. Iowa State was stronger. Iowa State was more composed. Iowa State was better.
A lot better.
“We take tremendous pride, obviously, in how we pressure the basketball, turn people over, make them play at a faster pace,” head coach T.J. Otzelberger said. “We came out with great intent, great energy, great togetherness really connected. We put them in a really tough spot with how we guarded and a lot of possessions they didn’t get shots on goal. Love that focus. Love that intentionality.”
St. John’s entered this game playing at one of the fastest paces in college basketball, ranking No. 2 nationally in adjusted tempo on KenPom. The Red Storm surely wanted to take advantage of that pace in this game, especially against an Iowa State defense that ranks among the sport’s best.
That advantage never materialized though against an Iowa State defense that was highly active and perfectly in tune together. St. John’s turned the ball over eight times in the game’s first eight minutes.
They attempted two shots in that stretch.
Mike Anderson’s team didn’t make a field goal until Rafael Pinzon knocked down a 3-pointer… with 9:54 left in the first half. The shot cut Iowa State’s lead to 17-5.
The Cyclones scored the game’s next five points, ballooning the lead to 22-5, forcing a St. John’s timeout with 8:28 left. That was Iowa State’s largest lead of the night.
Otzelberger’s team never led by fewer than nine points the rest of the game.
“We knew the tempo was going to be really important, and we have a lot of pride when we’re playing at Hilton Coliseum and in front of that awesome crowd and our fans,” Otzelberger said. “When you focus on doing fundamental things with great intent, and commitment, then you’re able to control the game like we were able to do pretty much from start to finish today.”
This game was simply another example of what this team’s defensive ceiling could be. Iowa State has guards who are capable of making life difficult for every perimeter player but also has the frontcourt pieces needed to completely lock up the paint.
St. John’s turned the ball over 20 times, and guard Posh Alexander was guilty of eight of those while playing a team-high 35 minutes. Needless to say, Alexander could probably use an ice bath when the St. John’s plane lands in New York City.
Iowa State also held their visitors from the Big Apple to 35.8 percent from the field and 18.8 percent from deep (3-of-16). In the first half, St. John’s hit 6-of-23 shots at a 26.1 percent clip.
St. John’s couldn’t play fast effectively in this game, because the Red Storm could hardly hold onto the ball long enough to get a shot. Even when they did get a shot, it was rarely a good one.
The Red Storm were called for three technical fouls and had three players finish the game with four or more fouls. They were flustered. Their will was broken.
That is what Iowa State does to people under Otzelberger.
They are going to set the tone early and if you don’t match that tone, they’re going to pummel you into submission. St. John’s wasn’t capable of matching that tone even with the New York City basketball reputation of toughness.
New York City tough learned about Ames, Iowa tough on this Sunday.
“We want them frustrated. We want teams to think twice about driving the lane and we’re going to be there every single time,” Iowa State senior guard Jaren Holmes, who scored a team-high 14 points, said. “At the end of the day, we’re just trying to focus on what we do best, and not really what other teams do. We’re trying to be the best defensive team that we can be. Not really focus on what other teams want to do. We just focus on what we do best, and the team that we are.”
Perhaps nobody on Iowa State’s team better embodies Ames, Iowa tough than the Cyclones’ backup center Robert Jones. The Minnesota native scored 11 points, grabbed four rebounds, dished three assists and snagged two steals against St. John’s.
It was Jones’ fifth time scoring in double-figures during the Cyclones’ last six games.
The guy people considered to be a culture piece when he committed to Iowa State in the spring of 2021 has suddenly become an important cog in the Cyclone machine.
“There were some times last season and into the postseason, that we challenged Robert, we knew he was capable of more, we knew the type of player that he could become if he put the work in every single day,” Otzelberger said. “There’s probably nobody that committed more in the offseason than him to being in great shape, changing his body, his body looks different, his confidence is different, all attributable to the hard work he did every single day.”
“Now we’re seeing him come out here night after night and post double figures. Last year, we weren’t able to go to him as much and now he’s a focal point of what we do. He’s a focal point and what we do at key moments in the game. We know we can go to him. We know we can count on him.”
Jones’ growth is remarkable, especially offensively, where he’s become a go-to option for Iowa State on the block. His moves in the post aren’t always what I’d call the most aesthetically pleasing, but they’re effective.
He’s not going to blow you away with his touch around the bucket, but he’s going to kickstand and pivot you into oblivion until he gets enough space to get off the hook shot he can score with over either shoulder.
It doesn’t always look like it should work, but it somehow does.
“He’s a force. He’s a presence down there,” Holmes said. “Our goal when he gets in the game is to go inside to him, and let him show how much energy he has, and how much energy he has bottled up. You guys see him maybe once or twice a week. We see him every single day. He brings that same intensity, that same energy. That’s nothing new to us.”
As important as Iowa State’s defensive toughness and activity were, it was the Cyclones’ disciplined offense that prevent St. John’s from being able to get out and run the way they really wanted to.
The Cyclones were deliberate offensively, making sure to find the right shot and moving the ball side-to-side with the pass rather than the dribble to force St. John’s to move its defense.
Iowa State turned down opportunities at the fastbreak in favor of grinding the game down to a snail’s pace. The Cyclones shot only 42.9 percent from the field and 38.5 percent from 3-point range.
And still won by double digits.
“I think overall, it was just good offense,” Holmes said. “Not bad shots, not quick shots. If we take care of the ball, we work it inside, use the shot clock, and make them play in the half court, that’s not what they want to do. If we sit here and chuck threes and not play the way that we want to play, we’re playing right to their advantage.”
I think that last point is an important one from Holmes.
Not only is this team connected and talented, but it seems self-aware. This is not a team that is ignorant of its faults. They know they have a blueprint for success, and deviation from that blueprint could lead to disasterous results.
That’s the product of having a veteran team, one of the most experienced teams in college basketball. They know themselves better than other people know them.
They know what they can do and what they can’t do.
They can’t be the kind of team that sprints up and down the court at a breakneck pace with the goal of scoring 100 points every night. They can be the kind of team that brings its hardhat and lunchpail to work every day with the intention of making their opponents’ lives miserable.
On Sunday, Iowa State made life miserable for St. John’s.
The Cyclones never even trailed as a result.