Mar 4, 2023; Waco, Texas, USA; Iowa State Cyclones forward Robert Jones (12) reacts after a made basket against the Baylor Bears during the first half at Ferrell Center. Mandatory Credit: Raymond Carlin III-USA TODAY Sports
There will be no further questions about Iowa State’s NCAA Tournament destiny.
With seemingly everything stacked against them on Saturday in Waco, T.J. Otzelberger’s team unleashed perhaps its most impressive, dominant and cold-blooded performance of the season in a 73-58 upset win over No. 7 Baylor.
The Cyclones did it by playing with the spirit and defensive intensity Otzelberger sought earlier this week after it was announced Caleb Grill had been dismissed from the program.
Iowa State held Baylor, which entered the game with the No. 2 adjusted offensive efficiency in college basketball, to just 35.8 percent shooting from the field and 35.7 percent shooting from 3-point range.
The Cyclones did it by utilizing, literally, every player on their bench. All 11 Cyclones who suited up for the game on Saturday saw the floor and 10 of them attempted at least one shot.
Each of the players who saw the floor brought major contributions even if it didn’t appear in the stat sheet, including walk-on Conrad Hawley, also known as the team’s Chief Energy Officer, who played in the first half of a game for the first time this season and played one minute without recording a stat.
Jaren Holmes played one of his best games in weeks by scoring a team-high 16 points on 6-of-9 shooting from the field with seven rebounds, five assists and a 1-of-3 mark from downtown.
Gabe Kalscheur scored 12 points on 3-of-9 shooting, but all 12 of those points came at crucial moments for the Cyclones.
After Iowa State led by 11 at halftime, Baylor came out in the second half and unleashed a 10-0 run that ultimately cut their deficit to four points. Iowa State responded with an 11-0 run fueled by multiple tough shots from Kalscheur, including a mid-range jumper and two 3-pointers.
Tre King highlighted a dominant effort in the painted area for the Cyclones by scoring 12 points on 5-of-11 from the field and seven rebounds. He was a key reason why Iowa State was able to dominate the points in the paint battle, 36-14.
Another reason for that dominance was the Cyclones’ interior passing along the baseline as King, Robert Jones and Demarion Watson had Baylor defenders on skates throughout the afternoon.
This was unquestionably the best performance of Watson’s young career as he came off the bench to tally four points, three rebounds and two assists in 17 minutes of play. Watson’s biggest impact for this program projects on the defensive end, but he is already an elite-level cutter without the ball offensively and is a very good passer in tight spaces.
Jones drew the start for Iowa State on Saturday and responded by scoring seven points, snagging five rebounds and dishing two assists. His work on the glass and in the paint helped Iowa State own the boards, 36-24, and grab seven offensive rebounds.
Osun Osunniyi and Hason Ward came off the bench to provide sparks in their own rights, posting eight points and four points, respectively, on a combined 5-of-6 from the field with six combined rebounds.
Iowa State’s ability to share the basketball was on display as they posted 19 assists on 26 made baskets for a 73 percent assist rate. That ability to share the ball helped Iowa State’s offense generate efficient looks the entire afternoon, finishing by knocking down 54.2 percent of their shots from the field.
There is no doubt this is one of the most improbable wins for Iowa State men’s basketball in recent memory. You’re on the road against a top-10 team just days removed from one of your best players being dismissed from the team and in the midst of a stretch where you’ve lost 10 of your last 14 games.
Not only was this team unfazed by the chips stacked against them, but they also responded to that adversity with a chip on their shoulders. They came out ready to play from the opening tap, owning the lead for more than 35 minutes.
Iowa State has now rebounded from its skid to finish with a .500 record in Big 12 play for the first time since 2018-19. The Cyclones will be either the five-seed or the six-seed in the Big 12 Tournament next week in Kansas City and have completely avoided playing in Wednesday night’s first-round contests.
Next week in Kansas City gets a lot more interesting if Iowa State is able to replicate the energy and effort it played with on Saturday in Waco. If they’re able to defend and share the ball the same way they did in this game, it could be a longer stay than many expected earlier in the week.
Few saw the last extended stay for this program coming. This is no prediction, but simply a statement of the facts. The 2018-19 team, the last Iowa State team to finish .500 in league play before this one, seemed to have the deck stacked against them, too.
That’s where the similarity between the two teams dies, though. There is something different about this Iowa State team than many of the others that have come before them.
On Saturday in Waco, against all odds, they proved that again.