Iowa State Cyclones forward Milan Momcilovic (22) takes a three-point shot over Green Bay Defenders during the first half at Hilton Coliseum on Monday, Nov. 6, 2023, in Ames, Iowa. © Nirmalendu Majumdar/Ames Tribune / USA TODAY NETWORK
AMES — Iowa State freshman Milan Momcilovic squared up for his first career 3-point shot Monday night at Hilton Coliseum.
Heads turned as he deftly flicked his wrist. The resulting swish — along with five more baskets from long range — became the story of the night as the Cyclones pummeled Green Bay, 85-44, but consider Momcilovic’s performance an introduction rather than a fully-formed tall tale.
“Obviously, when you go 6-for-7 from three, the story’s gonna be the shooting and at times, in the past, that hasn’t been our greatest strength, so it’s great for all of us to see him make shots,” said ISU head coach T.J. Otzelberger, whose team (1-0) faces Lindenwood (0-1) at 7 p.m. Thursday in Hilton. “But what I’d say with Milan is, defensively, he’s really elevated himself. He’s done a terrific job rebounding. He’s a guy (who) can create confusion for the defense when he’s really on the move; a guy (who) catches the ball in the paint in the low-post area and can elevate over people and score. He’s a very complete basketball player and we’re gonna continue to challenge him to be that every time out.”
Heady words for a heads-up player. Momcilovic proved to be fully ready for his first breakout opportunity precisely because of how he hones his draft. Becoming “a complete player” fresh out of high school hinges on the work done in a practice jersey instead of a game uniform — and if Momcilovic is to turn his big-splash moment into a season-long showcase of success, none of that behind-the-scenes discipline can dip.
“It’s gonna be a fun year,” Momcilovic, who led ISU with 18 points, said on ESPN+ after the win. “We’ve got a special group and we’re gonna do some special things.”
How special? Stay tuned on that front. First, the Cyclones must navigate through the low-hanging fruit likes of Lindenwood, as well as challenging non-conference foes such as VCU and Iowa, before Big 12 play beckons on Jan. 6 at Oklahoma. Job number one for Otzelberger’s team is racking up enough wins to ensure a third-straight trip to the NCAA Tournament. The Cyclones’ larger goals spring from that foundational platform.
“I do think there’s a blend there of wanting to play against certain things that are preparing you for the season, but I’d say it starts out with the math part of it,” Otzelberger said.
Thursday night, ISU will play against a Lions team that fell, 84-52, at Nebraska on Monday and checks in at 354th along 362 Division I teams ranked by KenPom. So the math says the Cyclones will likely notch another blowout win, but deeper equations should help suss out the team’s identity along with precisely where all of the many new pieces fit within the broader picture. One thing is certain, however: ISU’s ability to score on a game-by-game basis should ratchet up significantly as Momcilovic and UNLV transfer Keshon Gilbert showed by combining for 35 points on 12-for-22 shooting. Sophomore point guard Tamin Lipsey also shined on both ends of the floor, draining both of his 3-point tries while grabbing eight rebounds, dishing out seven assists and snaring two steals.
“I think because we’ve always been a good defensive team (under Otzelberger), bringing that offense along with it is going to be really good and it’s going to show up for us in big games,” said Cyclone senior big man Robert Jones, who went 4-for-4 from the field and grabbed five rebounds in just under 15 minutes.
Whether that offense comes from Momcilovic or several of ISU’s other skilled offensive players forms the framework of a welcomed mystery. There weren’t many guest stars for that points-based storyline in the past two seasons, but there are now.
“It’s our job to make sure everybody is playing to their strength,” Otzelberger said. “Playing to the best of their ability, locked in, and now it’s continuing to challenge everybody to be at their best and to be production-driven when they get in.”