Iowa State University Cyclones guard Tamin Lipsey (3) lays up the ball around Baylor Bears guard Adam Flagler, guard Dale Bonner (3), and forward Flo Thamba (0) during the second half at Hilton Coliseum Saturday, Dec. 31, 2022, in Ames, Iowa. Photo by Nirmalendu Majumdar/Ames Tribune
Let’s get back to basketball.
There hasn’t been much discussion of Iowa State’s on-court abilities over the last couple of days after it was announced that Caleb Grill had been dismissed from the program for an inability to live up to its standards.
It is an unfortunate situation with many layers that we’ll surely be unpacking for a long time. That is not the kind of story that goes away in one, two or three days.
We have to get back to basketball eventually, though.
That fact rings true because this Iowa State team still has plenty left out there to achieve. The first potential achievement opportunity arrives on Saturday when Iowa State visits No. 7 Baylor in its regular season finale.
“Regardless of what additional opportunities in the conference tournament or beyond, what may be in front of us, our focus right now is a game on Saturday,” Iowa State head coach T.J. Otzelberger said. “Our focus is have a great practice today, have great team meeting today, have a great practice tomorrow, and carry that forward and put ourselves in great position to win against a really good team.”
We’ve already seen some of the on-court implications of Grill’s dismissal play out this season. He’d already missed four games, and Iowa State is 1-3 in those games with the only win coming against McNeese State when Grill was out with an illness.
The Cyclones are not the kind of team where you can expect one person to step into Grill’s role and suddenly the machine is back on the tracks. Replacing Grill’s 9.5 points per game is more likely to come from a by-committee approach.
That means Gabe Kalscheur and Jaren Holmes will have to step up to be the best versions of themselves if Iowa State is going to upset the Bears.
Jaz Kunc’s role with the team expands as he’ll be one of the Cyclones’ best 3-point shooting options on the perimeter outside of Kalscheur and Holmes.
Bench depth pieces like Tre King will be likely to see more minutes with more ticks left to go around.
Demarion Watson is another bench player who could see his opportunities grow with Grill’s dismissal. The freshman has proven to have the tools to be a strong defender, but we know his offense is still starting to come around.
The good news for Watson is his head coach knows where getting back to being the Iowa State team we’ve come to know this season has to start.
“Demarion gives us someone particularly defensively, he’s got the length, athleticism, instincts,” Otzelberger said. “He’s had some really good defensive moments for us. When someone’s not with you that’s made some shots and scored some points, it’s like, well, now can somebody else just score those points and like I mentioned, I feel strongly that our defensive identity that we’ve created will be the way to do that. For Demarion, there’s going to be more opportunities for him certainly, and as he steps into more of those opportunities with a defensive intent and effort based focus.”
There might not be a stiffer challenge for Iowa State to get back to its defensive roots against than the Bears, who enter Saturday’s game with the No. 2 adjusted offensive efficiency in the country, according to KenPom.
Scott Drew’s team is led by one of the nation’s most dynamic backcourts and the three-headed monster of Adam Flagler, LJ Cryer and Keyonte George.
Flagler and Cryer are two of the league’s best long-range snipers, connecting on better than 40 percent of their shots from downtown this season, while George doesn’t lag far behind, hitting roughly 36 percent of his shots from deep.
All three players are capable of penetrating the defense and scoring at all three levels of the court. Keeping them out of the paint and preventing them from collapsing Iowa State’s defense will be one of the game’s biggest keys.
“Their backcourt is phenomenal,” Otzelberger said. “They’re as prolific offensively as probably any team in the country. They’ve got a handful of guards that can all dribble, pass, shoot, and not just kind of shoot but like shoot it with great consistency and regularity.”
Up front, Baylor has received a significant boost during Big 12 play from the return of Johnathan Tchamwa Tchatchoua, who was a key piece of Baylor’s 2020-21 national title team and has appeared in each of the last eight games after missing the start of the year while recovering from an injury suffered last season.
“Everyday Jon” combines with Flo Thamba for one of the league’s more versatile frontcourts, especially on the defensive end.
“On their frontline, they do an unbelievable job doing effort based things,” Otzelberger said. “Rebounding, hitting the boards and doing all those things so well.”
The reality for Iowa State is they’ll be facing a steep uphill climb going into this game. The Bears are playing great basketball, and are considered a team capable of winning a national championship for a reason.
This game is sure to come down to how well Iowa State can do against those guards, and they’ve proven they can handle that by holding Baylor to one of its lowest point totals of the season in their first game.
That game was a long time ago, though, and a lot has happened since then.
At least Iowa State can get back to basketball.
“For us to be successful, we’ve got to be very intentional defensively, we got to finish plays on the glass, gotta get the loose balls,” Otzelberger said. “We’ve got to challenge that offense with our defense. That will allow us to gain the momentum we need offensively to be successful.”