Iowa State sees a great opportunity in Tuesday’s Big 12 matchup with No. 2 Houston at Hilton

Jan 6, 2024; Norman, Oklahoma, USA; Oklahoma Sooners guard Milos Uzan (12) drives against Iowa State Cyclones forward Tre King (0) during the second half at Lloyd Noble Center. Mandatory Credit: Alonzo Adams-USA TODAY Sports

 AMES — There will be duds. Extended stretches of futility along the perilous razor’s edge known as the win-loss column. And if there’s one thing that Iowa State head coach T.J. Otzelberger has learned about life in the Big 12, it’s that every team will find itself with a seemingly faint pulse at least once during the conference season, making tumult a day-to-day feature, with no relief in sight.

 “That’s the great thing about this league, right?” said Otzelberger, whose Cyclones (11-3, 0-1) face No. 2 Houston (14-0, 1-0) at 6 p.m. Tuesday (ESPN2) at Hilton Coliseum. “Because if you look at it, there was a time two years ago, I think we lost eight out of 10. Last year, we lost seven out of nine. I don’t think anybody talks about that. They talk about (his team’s two) NCAA tournament berths. How do you put yourself in that position? You get really good at handling adversity and just staying at work, right?”

 There’s no other option. It’s cliche to say that there are no nights off in the Big 12, but it’s also an evergreen truth.

Case in point: Five conference teams currently sit among the top 15 in the NET rankings. Six reside within the Associated Press top 25. And as for KenPom’s advanced metrics? Five Big 12 teams rank among the top 18 there, providing further proof that it’s the deepest, most talent-rich conference in the country.

 “There’s nothing really like it in terms of the skill from top to bottom,” said ISU senior forward Tre King, who’s averaging 10.2 points and 5.1 rebounds while battling an array of maladies this season. “The physicality of the league. The speed of the game. This is the highest level of basketball below the NBA in my opinion. It doesn’t get any better than this.”

 Enter the Cougars, who stand atop the NET rankings — and even though it’s their first season in the Big 12, they fully embody the overall strength of the conference. Houston trounced West Virginia, 89-55, in its Big 12 opener, and is ranked No. 1 defensively in a staggering six statistical categories according to KenPom.

 “They have older guys, physical bodies, they play with tremendous energy and enthusiasm,” Otzelberger said of the nation’s lone remaining unbeaten team. “Every time you set a ball screen, they have two players to the ball immediately. Every time you set a ball screen, they immediately take the roller away so they make you continue to pass it. It’s almost like a hot potato. You’ve gotta move it, you’ve gotta move it, you’ve gotta move it because if you keep the ball in one guy’s hands, their coverage doesn’t bust.”

 But the Cougars haven’t played in a sold-out Hilton Coliseum yet, where opposing teams of any pedigree often crumble amid the deafening noise that undergirds the building’s so-called “magic.” Five of the Cyclones’ nine top-25 wins last season came at home — including a trio of top-eight wins over Kansas, Kansas State and Texas.

 “When people come into (Hilton), people dread playing us because they know what the atmosphere is going to be like, how the fans are,” King said. “I think that gives us another sense of pride, another reason to play harder. There are definitely times where we’ve been down and the crowd gives us that spark, and just like that the momentum switches.”

 So buckle up. Leg two of an 18-game rollercoaster ride is set to begin and there will be no stops until deep into March.

 “You’ve got to have a short memory,” first-year guard Curtis Jones said. “Learn from the good and the bad in (the previous) game and just move on to the next game as another opportunity to win.”