NO YAWNING: How T.J. Otzelberger’s “daily habits” have ISU on the doorstep of the Elite Eight

Mar 23, 2024; Omaha, NE, USA; Iowa State Cyclones head coach T.J. Otzelberger gestures during the first half against the Washington State Cougars in the second round of the 2024 NCAA Tournament at CHI Health Center Omaha. Mandatory Credit: Dylan Widger-USA TODAY Sports

 BOSTONT.J. Otzelberger constantly stresses the importance of strictly adhering to daily habits.

 But what precisely does Iowa State’s head coach mean when he talks about the iron-clad routine he’s devised for himself and his team?

 “It starts with how you walk into the building,” said Otzelberger, whose second-seeded Cyclones (29-7) will face third-seeded Illinois (28-8) in Thursday’s 9:10 p.m. NCAA Tournament Sweet 16 East Regional game (TNT, TruTV) at the storied TD Garden. “It starts with how you shake hands, how you communicate, what your body language is. No yawning. When somebody asks you how you’re doing, you tell them you’re doing great. (It’s) how (we) approach everything.”

 Wait, no yawning?

 “We couldn’t yawn in the weight room when it started out,” freshman forward Milan Momcilovic said. “If we yawned in the weight room, we got five to 10 pushups.”

 It’s all about discipline. Self-sacrifice. An unwavering belief that fully buying into every aspect of the broader game plan — from the micro to the macro — yields success, and so far, it’s led to two Sweet 16 appearances in Otzelberger’s first three seasons.

 “Everything matters,” said 6-7 sophomore spark plug Demarion Watson. “T.J. always preaches it’s the small stuff that matters and how you do anything is how you do everything. From your schoolwork, turning that in on time, not being late to meetings, whether that’s academic or athletic, or even if you have a medical thing. So that’s basically the main thing he preaches and the small things have got us to this point.”

 That would be an epic Big 12 vs. Big Ten showdown. ISU’s top-ranked defense, according to KenPom, stacked against the Illini’s No. 1 offense. A Sweet 16 matchup that’s as intriguing on paper as it will be once the ball is tipped late Thursday night in the house Red Auerbach built.

 “They’ve got a lot of firepower over there,” Momcilovic said. “Obviously, we have a lot of firepower, so I think it’s just gonna depend a lot on how our offense does because I feel like for the most part we’ll do a good job on the defensive end. Obviously, they’re gonna get their s a little bit. They’re good players, so we’re gonna try to shut them down a little bit.”

 That’s easier said than done against an Illini offense led by senior guard Terrence Shannon Jr., who’s averaging 23.3 points per game.

 “He’s a great overall player,” said Cyclone sophomore guard Tamin Lipsey, a semifinalist for the Naismith defensive player of the year award. “(I’m) looking forward to the matchup.”

 Illinois head coach Brad Underwood is not looking forward to facing ISU’s ball pressure.

 “They’re going to play exceptionally hard,” said Underwood, whose team is in the Sweet 16 for the first time since 2005. “I’m not oblivious to think that we won’t turn the ball over a few times. You’ve got to be very decisive in your decisions. You’ve got to be ball-tough.”

 That’s what Otzelberger stresses in reverse. The Cyclones seek to wreak havoc on the defensive end of the floor and often succeed with that strategy because of the daily habits he’s instilled in his players from the first moment they stop on campus.

 Just ask senior forward Tre King, who sat on the bench as a transfer when ISU reached the Sweet 16 in 2022 before falling to Miami. King spent some of his prep years at Hargrave Military Academy in Chatham, Va.

 “We were very detail-oriented, very structured, and we did a lot of hard things,” King said. “So I wasn’t a stranger to the process. I wasn’t a stranger to the work and that’s something that’s really drawn us together.”

 And it purposefully propels the Cyclones’ program forward. No excuses. No slack given, no shortcuts sought.

 “We don’t deviate because we want to eliminate any of those external variables and just focus on what the work is,” Otzelberger said, “You did it yesterday. Hit repeat, do it again today.”

 So there will be no yawning despite the late tip-off time on Thursday. The Cyclones seek to reach the Elite Eight for the first time since 2000, but they’re not focused on history. They’re too rooted in the present grind — the minute things that can breed mammoth results.

 “When you get to a point like this, you hope every little thing that you did pays off,” senior guard Curtis Jones said. “And it’s definitely paying off.”