KANSAS CITY — There were no tears or hanging heads.
Iowa State’s locker room after Friday night’s 71-58 loss to Kansas in the Big 12 Tournament semifinals was quiet. There were no smiles, but there were no frowns either.
This was a quiet locker room, but it remains a confident one.
The Cyclones will not be taking a trophy back to Ames with them this weekend. There will not be a mass exodus from central Iowa to northwest Missouri this time.
And that’s okay.
This team knows something still waits for them out there. They know the ride is not over. The best part is they’ll continue that ride with a feeling of quiet confidence.
The Cyclones feel like they’ve found their mojo again.
“To be honest with you, I think we found ourselves, again,” Iowa State senior guard Jaren Holmes, who scored a team-high 16 points against the Jayhawks, said. “Yeah, the outcome wasn’t what we wanted, but, at a time like this, you just need to get back to what got you there in the first place. I think that we have. Our locker room is just that much better. We’re together. We’re playing for each other. Our energy coming out to play, it’s just on another level right now. Having that in your corner is second to none. We’re ready to go.”
Nothing seemed to bounce Iowa State’s way in this game at the T-Mobile Center. The Cyclones couldn’t get a roll on the rim. They had a tough time coming down with difficult catches. They had a hard time securing steals.
Iowa State had 22 turnovers and was whistled for 21 fouls. Kansas coughed up 17 turnovers of their own and was whistled for 14 fouls, too.
It was just one of those nights. It was one of those sloppy games.
The ball was bouncing Kansas’ way, and that’s the last thing you want when you’re already playing arguably the best team in college basketball. In fact, I’ll make the call right now.
Kansas is going to repeat as national champions over the next few weeks.
The Cyclones proved something in Kansas City, though, too. They’re every bit good enough to win two games next weekend and find their way to the second weekend for the second straight year.
“Our guys, the unity, the connectedness, the fun they’re having playing for one another, it’s great,” Iowa State head coach T.J. Otzelberger said. “Certainly, wish we could have done some things better tonight, but feel really good about the way we’re playing and where we’re at as a team heading into the postseason.”
Nobody should be shocked to learn another of the sentiments coming out of Iowa State’s postgame locker room. Everybody seems excited to prepare for a team outside of the Big 12.
We all love the best conference in America, but there is no doubt the grind of this league wears on people. Everyone goes through rough stretches, and Iowa State’s rough stretch was as bad as just about anyone else in the league.
The difficulty of the league has prepared Iowa State, and every other Big 12 team that makes the field, for what they’re about to face over the next several weeks.
“There’s no better conference in the country,” Holmes said. “There’s no conference that’s more physical. I still believe this conference calls the least amount of fouls in the country. When you think about that, playing with that physicality, that defense that we play, I don’t think a lot of teams are ready for that.”
Or you can take the sentiment from Gabe Kalscheur, who struggled on Friday, scoring eight points on 3-of-12 from the field.
“I’m excited to see what Selection Sunday has for us, where they place us,” Kalscheur said. “Hopefully, it’s not a Big 12 team right away. I don’t think they can do that. I feel like we’re in a good spot with who we play. This is the best conference in the country. We’re one of the best teams in this conference.”
No, Gabe, luckily, the committee cannot pair Iowa State with another Big 12 team for at least the first two rounds. The Cyclones are guaranteed a few games against some fresh competition.
We know how well that went for Kalscheur and that group a year ago.
Let’s take a moment to appreciate Kalscheur’s contribution to the program, and the contributions of Robert Jones and Aljaz Kunc, the only remaining players from last year’s team on this roster.
These were a bunch of guys who committed to a program that had just gone 0-18 in league play. Iowa State men’s basketball quite literally could not have been further away from the NCAA Tournament.
Now, the Cyclones are about to appear in the NCAA Tournament for the second straight season. That might be a surprise to some when you consider where this program came from, but Kalscheur is not one of those people.
“Yes, I’m a winner,” Kalscheur said when asked if he expected to get to “The Big Dance” twice at Iowa State. “I’ve been in a winning culture. I expect myself to play in opportunities like this with this coaching staff and this group of guys. We work hard in the offseason. All the work we put in, doesn’t happen to pay off. It is supposed to pay off. We’re supposed to have this opportunity.”
Iowa State has proven it is deserving of this opportunity. There will be no Selection Sunday sweat or anything along those lines. Joe Lunardi currently projects them as a No. 5 seed in the NCAA Tournament.
“Shoot, if you look at these guys and where we were at when a guy like Gabe, Rob and Jaz committed to us, where this program was at and those three guys who have been here for two seasons, and where we’re at now,” Otzelberger said. “So much pride in what they’ve done. They deserve so much credit for the work and for taking that leap of faith. The guys who came in this year, we’re positioned as a program, we’re in a really good spot. We’ll keep our focus on what’s in front of us with the tournament coming up, but, as much as I love Iowa State, you know how much that means to me personally, I’m just really proud of these guys for restoring that pride and that faith in our program and who we are.”
That’s why there weren’t any hanging heads or tears in Friday night’s postgame locker room. The air was quiet, but it was the kind of quiet that exudes confidence for moving forward.
The Cyclones have their mojo back, and they found it just in time to put their dancing shoes on.