Iowa State returns most of its scoring next season and hopes to pierce that Sweet 16 ceiling

Mar 28, 2024; Boston, MA, USA; Iowa State Cyclones guard Curtis Jones (5) and guard Keshon Gilbert (10) talk to the referee against the Illinois Fighting Illini in the semifinals of the East Regional of the 2024 NCAA Tournament at TD Garden. Mandatory Credit: Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports

 AMES — An intact backcourt. Some promising younger players. A skilled big man (or two) from the transfer portal.

 Iowa State’s potential roster for the 2024-25 season is filled with scorers and lockdown defenders, particularly at the guard position, where standouts Keshon Gilbert, Curtis Jones and Tamin Lipsey are expected to return after helping to guide the Cyclones to their second Sweet 16 appearance in the past three years.

 So the future remains bright, even though this season went dark more quickly than they’d hoped. 

 “I think we’re probably a top-ten program in the country and when you look at it, that’s really impressive and that’s good for this group of guys,” Lipsey said after last Thursday’s 72-69 loss to Illinois in the NCAA tournament’s Sweet 16. “We put in so much work, so we’ve got a lot to build off of.”

 Start with Lipsey, a first-team All-Big 12 selection as a sophomore. Sprinkle in seniors such as Gilbert and Jones — both of whom can score and defend at a high level — along with sophomore-to-be Milan Momcilovic, and it’s likely the Cyclones will be among a handful of teams favored to challenge for a Big 12 title in 2024-25.

 “You have everybody who scores at a high level coming back,” said outgoing big man Robert Jones, who served as a foundational figure in each of head coach T.J. Otzelberger’s first three seasons. “Curtis coming back. Keshon coming back. The best point guard in the nation (Lipsey) is coming back. … We’ve got a lot of great guys in this program. The fans should have a lot to look forward to.”

 Four ISU players entered the transfer portal after the Sweet 16 loss: reserve guard Jackson Paveletzke, redshirt freshman forwards Kayden Fish and Jelani Hamilton, and freshman forward Omaha Biliew, a former five-star recruit who rarely cracked the Cyclones’ experience-laden rotation this season.

 The departure of seniors Robert Jones, Tre King and Hason Ward creates a void in the front court, but 7-1 redshirt freshman J.T. Rock is expected to earn minutes and ISU has already plucked well-traveled 6-11 senior Dishon Jackson (11.4 points per game, 6.1 rebounds) of Charlotte from the transfer portal.

 “I’ve always felt this — that coaches who do things the way T.J. does them, we’re gonna be back in the Sweet 16 more often than not,” ISU director of athletics Jamie Pollard said. “With the resources we have, the conference that we play in, he’ll put us in a position to be here.”

 Otzelberger’s Cyclones have four open scholarships, too, so it’s unlikely they’re done dipping into the portal — particularly in terms of addressing frontcourt needs.

 “Once we get our group here in the summer, we’re going,” said Otzelberger, whose team (29-9) fell one victory short of achieving the second 30-win season in program history. “We’re going in June and we’re building those habits right away, so now it’s make sure you get guys healthy, make sure they’re eating right and they’re doing the (right) things for their (bodies), getting in the weight room, and then continue to work on the shooting.”

 That’s what Momcilovic will be doing. The 6-6 member of the Big 12’s all-freshman team is his own worst critic, but that speaks to his winner’s mentality. 

  “I played terrible (against Illinois), but at the same time, it’s gonna be motivation in the offseason, just to work harder, because there’s so much room for improvement for me,” Momcilovic said. “I had a decent freshman year, but I struggled in some stretches, so I feel like I can just play way better.”

 That’s the feeling program-wide as ISU seeks to put together an even better season in hopes of crashing through that Sweet 16 ceiling for the first time since 2000. The Cyclones have reached the second weekend in four of the past 10 tournaments, but are convinced they’ll be capable of making a deeper run next season and beyond.

 “There (are) gonna be more kicks at this can,” Pollard said. “And I have no doubt, under T.J.’s leadership, that we will go past where we are today.”