STANZ: Cyclones lose focus in home loss to Oklahoma State

Iowa State University Cyclones guard Jaren Holmes (13) lays up the ball around Oklahoma State Cowboys’ guard Woody Newton (4) during the first half at Hilton Coliseum on Saturday, Feb. 11, 2023, in Ames, Iowa.

AMES — Iowa State men’s basketball lost track of its identity this week.

Too many people have started to think of the Cyclones as this team that’s going to roll into your house and kick the crap out of you for 40 minutes. If they can’t do it on the scoreboard, they’ll do it with their defense and muddy the game.

Yes, toughness and defense are two of the core tenants of what T.J. Otzelberger’s built in a year and a half plus in Ames. On the surface, those appear to be the two things that have driven Iowa State men’s basketball’s return to national prominence, and they certainly both played major roles.

People are forgetting about another of the major building blocks, though, and that’s the never-ending mindset of only controlling what you can control. That means rolling with the punches whether things are going really well or really horribly.

That means moving on to the next play when you feel you’ve been on the wrong end of an official’s whistle. That means moving on to the next shot when the last one didn’t clear the net. It means playing hard every second and making up for your deficiencies by controlling everything you can control with an iron fist.

The outside noise is chaos. The inside noise must be zen.

The Cyclones lost track of that this week, first with Wednesday’s loss to West Virginia, then again on Saturday in a 64-56 loss to Oklahoma State at Hilton Coliseum. It was Iowa State’s first home loss of the season and is unquestionably the worst loss on this squad’s ledger.

“Our mental toughness wasn’t very good,” Otzelberger said. “We’ve been a team that when we’ve had success, and the successes we’ve had have been attributable to everybody pouring into the team and doing what they can for the team. There were stretches our mental toughness wasn’t very good. To start the second half, after a reasonably good first half defensively, we gave up basket after basket. I felt like we were always worried about what wasn’t going our way offensively, whether it was free throws, shot attempts, fouls, all things that we allowed to get to us and prevent us from being the mentally tough team that we’ve come to be.”

There are three things I think need to be taken away from this game, and I’m going to hit on them each one by one then we’re all going to move on from the disappointment of this week.

The first one is Iowa State simply has to become a better free throw shooting team. This is not an “oh, it would be nice to be better at that thing,” situation. This is an “Iowa State absolutely has to shoot better from the free throw line,” thing.

The Cyclones were 9-of-19 from the foul line against the Cowboys, and that line is honestly misleading. It might as well have been 9-of-23 when you remember Iowa State also missed the front ends of four bonus one-and-one opportunities.

While most teams would see the single bonus as an advantage, it has become a pretty decided disadvantage for Iowa State. You’d darn near rather see Iowa State not get into the single bonus than see them have to attempt the front end of one-and-ones.

It might as well count as a turnover.

In Big 12 play, Iowa State is shooting 65.4 percent from the charity stripe. That ranks dead last in the league. There isn’t even another team below 66 percent. All but three teams in the league are making over 70 percent of their foul shots.

The impact of those missed free throws is amplified when you consider how few of them Iowa State regularly shoots. They’re last in the league in free throw rate, which means they’re getting to the line less frequently than everyone else.

Meanwhile, they’re putting teams on the line more than everyone else, but we’ll come back to that shortly.

One of every basketball grandpas’ favorite sayings is,”They’re not free unless you make them.” We’d all laugh and say, “Whatever you say, old man,” then launch a 35-footer like we’re Stephen Curry.

Well, guess what, they were right!

Getting fouled might as well be a turnover for Iowa State right now, and that simply can’t be the case when you play in the league with more tight games than any other in the country. People hate hearing about winning in the margins around here after football season.

This is the basketball equivalent of winning in the margins.

“It’s not good,” Otzelberger said. “It’s not going to put you in position to win. (The score) got away from us, but in close games, that’s an important factor. We’ve got to be better. As correctable as it is, it’s hard work, and it’s mental toughness, all things that we do on a daily basis. We need to demand it from ourselves. We want to do a better job shooting foul shots. We need to continue to be in the gym working on it and make sure our focus is in the right place, because I felt like at times, we went to the line, and we weren’t mentally in the right place to make them. I think that was evident.”

I’m going to put my hand up and admit I made a mistake this week. I did way too much talking about the officials after Wednesday night’s whistle-fest in Morgantown.

In my mind, officiating is a college basketball-wide problem. It is much more than an Iowa State problem. We all did too much worrying about that problem this week.

On Saturday, it felt like every person in Hilton Coliseum spent too much time worrying about the officials. It didn’t matter if it was a player, coach, fan or media member.

Everyone was worried about what the officials were doing.

Iowa State players were looking for calls when they didn’t get them. They’d get a call then go brick a free throw then worry about missing the free throw then get beat on defense then get called for a foul then Oklahoma State would make a free throw and it was a vicious cycle for 40 minutes.

Chants of “These refs suck” rained from the rafters late in the loss to the Cowboys.

What I’m about to lay out is something some people out there will surely think is stupid, but I think it is something worth being said. We all know how much Iowa State’s team feeds off of its crowd in Hilton Coliseum.

We all know how that ability to feed off the crowd’s energy fuels what Iowa State teams have done for a long time in this building. Right or wrong, that is the reality.

Nobody out there would ever confirm this to me in an official capacity, but it was easy to pick up on Saturday. Iowa State’s team fed off its crowd the same way it always does. The crowd was out for black-and-white striped blood from the moment the doors opened.

This team can’t control the whistle, but it can’t control the crowd, either. I can understand where someone will tell me that the players shouldn’t worry about those things, but if we want Iowa State men’s basketball players to feed off the crowd when things go well, we should be willing to read the room when things don’t go well.

Iowa State was called for one more foul than Oklahoma State was in this game, and that was only due to extending the game late. Oklahoma State had more turnovers, one more made field goal and one more 3-pointer.

This game could not have been more even in every statistical way.

Literally, the only difference was one team shot less than 40 percent from the free-throw line and lost their composure once things started to go sideways.

The worst part is that it was the home team.

“I think we were consumed by other things,” Otzelberger said. “We were consumed by officiating, we were consumed by ‘my shot not going in,’ we are consumed by ‘the game’s not going the way I want,’ we’re consumed by ‘we’re not getting stops,’ all those things.”

Oklahoma State deserves a lot more credit for what happened on Saturday in Ames than what they’ll likely get from Iowa State fans who feel as though the result was a screw job.

The reality is Mike Boynton has one of the best defensive teams in all of college basketball. They’re long, athletic and versatile all the way across the board. Darn near their entire team can guard one through five.

The Cowboys came into this game with the goal of preventing Gabe Kalscheur and Caleb Grill from getting clean in rhythm looks. That mission was most certainly accomplished as they combined to go 3-of-17 from the field and 3-of-11 from 3-point range.

Kalscheur started the game by making his first two shots, then missed 10 straight to close the game. Grill’s night ended when he was given a technical, his fifth personal, for having a heated conversation with OSU’s Caleb Asberry in the last two minutes of the game.

Add in the fact Jaren Holmes went 2-of-8 from the field for the Cyclones and you’ve got yourself a right offensive disaster. The Cowboys deserve credit for driving those struggles.

Iowa State deserves scolding for its reaction to them.

“It’s the best league in the country,” Otzelberger said. “You’ve got to have mental toughness. You’ve got to have physical toughness. You’ve got to understand that every single game you’ve got to get up and you’ve got to do those things. Disappointing. We didn’t do it today, but a lot of credit to them. They’re a really good defensive team and we let it get to us.”

The good news is there are still three weeks left in this season to get the vibes going in a more positive direction before postseason play. Despite what you might read on Twitter after this game, the season is not over.

Iowa State doesn’t have any problems that are not fixable. Everything that ails this team can be remedied to some point. Will they be perfect? No, but hardly anyone ever is in this sport.

The Cyclones need to get back to being themselves first, though. That means being mean, tough and nasty, but also being smart. It means being efficient offensively and playing together rather than getting frustrated by the ball not going in the hole and doing everything you can to right your own personal ship.

This team has to get back to controlling what it can control, because, right now, its being controlled by the things it can’t.

“Man, it’s disappointing,” Otzelberger said. “It’s a gut punch to me because we really tried to spend a lot of time focusing on that mental toughness and that togetherness, and I take that really personally. We’re gonna get that right.”

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.