Monday Musings: Let’s take a moment to appreciate Caleb Grill

Iowa State University Cyclones guard Caleb Grill (2) takes a three-point shot around Baylor Bears guard Adam Flagler (10) during the first half at Hilton Coliseum Saturday, Dec. 31, 2022, in Ames, Iowa. Photo by Nirmalendu Majumdar/Ames Tribune

One of the best things about this job is having the opportunity to be around young people, watching them grow and learn and succeed and fail and succeed more and fail more.

That process of maturation is what makes college athletics what they are. Nobody is ever a finished product. Everyone is always striving to become a better version of themselves.

This period of their lives is only a stop along the train tracks of life. It’s an important and formative period as 18-year-old kids come in and leave as young adults ready to tackle the world.

Caleb Grill’s life in college basketball has been a roller coaster.

He went from a lightly recruited South Dakota State signee to one of the most hotly pursued players on the high school recruiting market after his senior year of high school.

That flip brought him to Iowa State, but I think we all quickly learned Grill wasn’t ready for the stage. He was raw and just didn’t seem prepared for the Big 12.

The Maize, Kan. native went looking for a new home, and linked up with old friend T.J. Otzelberger at UNLV, making a move to play for the college coach he’d wanted to play for from the beginning.

There was growth during Grill’s one year in Vegas. He didn’t become an all-conference caliber player by any means, but you were starting to see the tools come together as the game slowed down and maturation took place.

When it was time for Otzelberger to leave UNLV for Iowa State, it would’ve been easy for Otz to leave Grill behind in the Nevada desert. After all, Grill had his opportunity at the Power 5 level, and the consensus belief would’ve landed against him being a Power 5 caliber player.

Otzelberger wasn’t deterred. He brought Grill with him to Ames, and he was rewarded as Grill started to prove he had what it takes to play at this level. He became a key rotational member of Iowa State’s 2021-22 Sweet 16 team.

Now a senior, Grill is approaching the culmination of the raw tools and talent that college coaches desired so strongly after he was released from his national letter of intent with South Dakota State.

Do you guys remember those old rock polishers they used to sell before every toy had to be electronic and every kid just wanted to play Fortnite?

You’d pick up any old rock from your front yard, put it in the tumbler and it would come out looking like a completely different rock, a shinier, better version of the rock you had before.

College basketball is a lot like that rock tumbler. Recruiting is the process of finding rocks in your yard, ones that will look good in your collection and complement its other pieces once you’ve done the work to polish it up a bit.

Skipping that polishing process or failing to follow through on the work that goes into it will leave your rocks looking like regular old garden rocks. It could lead you to believe those rocks don’t belong in something as prestigious as your rock collection.

It just doesn’t belong.

Grill has been through the rock tumbler. It wasn’t always pretty, but the process has left Grill looking like a totally different piece than when he started. There are no more questions about whether Grill belongs at the Power 5 level.

It was easy for fans to write Grill off after his struggles as a freshman. It was easy for fans to wonder if Otzelberger was making the right decision by bringing him back. It was easy for people to give up on Caleb Grill.

The hard thing was Caleb Grill refusing to give up on himself. The hard thing was going to the gym day after day to put up shot after shot while wondering why the daily work isn’t always translating to the court in games. The hard thing was Grill ignoring the outside questions, believing he belonged at this level and setting out to prove just that.

Going into Iowa State’s win over at-the-time No. 1 North Carolina back in November, Grill was 4-of-24 from 3-point range on the year. It was easy to wonder if things were ever actually going to click for Grill when he was shooting 16 percent from 3-point range.

The shots looked different, though. He appeared to be playing more freely, and with much higher confidence. Grill wasn’t scared to make a mistake anymore. He was just out there playing basketball.

That afternoon in Portland was unlike anything I’d seen in my nearly 10 years of covering Iowa State basketball. Grill’s 31 points on 7-of-11 shooting from 3-point range was so unexpected. It was the type of magical performance that left you wondering how it could be replicated.

Grill has knocked down 13-of-30 3-point attempts since that win over the Tar Heels for a 43 percent clip, well above his career 34 percent accuracy from deep in 100 college games. He’s a combined 8-of-14 from behind the arc in Iowa State’s last two games and put on a high-level shooting display during the Cyclones’ win over No. 12 Baylor on Saturday.

There no longer seems to be much thought in Grill’s decisions to shoot the ball. He doesn’t have to think about what he’s going to do next once the rock is in his hands. He feels that orange leather and knows it is time to rise and fire, close out defenders or depth behind the 3-point line be damned.

That’s the result of countless hours spent in the gym perfecting a craft that nobody really believes you can master. That’s the result of having a locker room and coaching staff that believe in you.

That’s the product of the rock polisher.

Shooting isn’t the only area where Grill’s growth has been felt. He continues to improve as an on-ball defender and is as comfortable as anybody playing in Otzelberger’s no-middle defensive scheme.

He’s become one of Iowa State’s best rebounders, filling a void left by the graduation of Izaiah Brockington and the transfer of Tyrese Hunter. The Cyclones needed guards to step up and crash the glass while their bigs cleared opposing bigs out of the middle.

Grill was Iowa State’s leading rebounder against the Bears, tallying seven corralled misses on the afternoon. He had six in the team’s win over Western Michigan, and a career-high 10 rebounds against St. John’s.

For a moment, forget the never-ending doom cycle of worrying about the transfer portal, players leaving early for the pros, name, image and likeness deals and the constant desire for instant gratification, and remember what college basketball really is about.

College basketball is about the 18-year-olds who arrive on the scene raw and in need of polish. College basketball is about those kids committing to their craft and their teams for the betterment of themselves and those around them.

College basketball is about learning, growing, succeeding and failing, then coming out as a better version of yourself on the other side.

Caleb Grill has been through the rock tumbler, and now we’re starting to see the polish that only time, experience and hard work can bring.

Big 12 Musings

*** Phog Allen Fieldhouse was at it again on Saturday. The defending national champion Kansas Jayhawks needed a 15-point second-half rally in order to secure their first league win over Oklahoma State, but it didn’t come without controversy.

Bryce Thompson probably should have been shooting free throws with a chance to tie the game and potentially force overtime after appearing to be fouled on the game’s second-to-last possession. I’ll let you watch the clip to decide for yourself, and I’m sure there will be people who defend the officials’ decision to swallow their whistles and let the players decide the game.

There aren’t many basketball games on the planet where that isn’t a foul, though, even in a close game against the home team. It just so happens that a large portion of those games seems to take place in Allen Fieldhouse.

*** It is worth noting the odds might not have been in Oklahoma State’s favor anyway when you consider Thompson is shooting only 56 percent from the free throw line this season while simultaneously shooting better than 40 percent from 3-point range.

Practice your stinking free throws, kids.

*** My concern level for Mike Boynton’s Big 12 Good Guy of the Year status continues to rise. Earning that distinction has become a one-way ticket to unemployment. Once the other coaches have started to circle the wagons to protect one of their own and profess how good of a guy and coach that guy is while their team struggles, then your goose is cooked.

Nothing has gone right for Boynton since Cade Cunningham led the Cowboys to the NCAA Tournament in 2019-20. Oklahoma State was good enough to be a tournament team last year, but they were given what very well could end up being one of the last postseason bans in college athletics.

Oklahoma State has the pieces to be good again this year, but they play in the best league in America and your margin for error is razor-thin. You have to wonder how long people in Stillwater will put up with a program that could give off an outside perception of spinning its tires.

Boynton should not be in any danger of losing his job yet, but he’s got the inside track to good guy status in the league this year. I hope it doesn’t come to that though because he does seem to be a genuinely good coach and is a great guy in the few experiences I’ve had with him.

*** For further Good Guy of the Year context, Bruce Weber would’ve been last year’s winner. Steve Prohm was the back-to-back winner the two years before that. Nobody should want to be the coach who has their competitors offering unprompted statements of support.

Unprompted statements of support from competitors can often be translated to, “I really enjoy kicking this guy’s ass and it would be nice to have a team we can chalk up as a win so please don’t fire him.”

*** I wrote last week that I have concerns about the direction of Texas Tech in year two under Mark Adams. The Red Raiders promptly went out and put on an absolute stinker of an offensive performance against TCU, and yet still had a chance to win the game late because TCU isn’t playing the best ball right now either.

The Red Raiders’ best win to this point in the season is against Louisiana Tech, which KenPom has as the No. 151 team in the country. Adams’ team is 10-0 in quad four games this year, and 0-3 against everyone else.

We’re going to find out awfully quick if this team can handle the gauntlet with home games against Kansas and Oklahoma on the schedule this week before trips to Ames and Austin next week. Tech could conceivably go 0-4 in those games, which would push them to 0-7 against quad-one teams.

They cannot afford to let that happen and dig itself into a deep hole in Big 12 play. Otherwise, they simply won’t have the resume to fall back on when Selection Sunday arrives.

*** One more and I’m out of here… I think Iowa State figures out a way to steal at least one of these road games this week. Oklahoma wasn’t able to hold off Texas in losing a one-point game at home on Saturday while TCU made its furious rally late behind Mike Miles to sink Tech. Both of these teams are vulnerable opportunities for the Cyclones.

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.