T.J. Otzelberger says ISU’s roster is essentially set in advance of highly anticipated 2024-25 season

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

AMES — It’s as much about fit as addressing needs. The “who” over the “what.” In that sense, nothing’s changed when it comes to navigating the transfer portal for Iowa State head coach T.J. Otzelberger and his staff — even as outcomes and expectations spiral upwards for the Cyclones’ program.

 “What we’re always looking for is guys who are hardworking, high character and self-aware,” Otzelberger said on a Zoom call Tuesday after his team picked up its fourth transfer — Joshua Jefferson of St. Marys — to essentially cement ISU’s 2024-25 roster. “We think these guys fit.”

 Jefferson, a 6-8 junior-to-be, committed to ISU on Tuesday, joining 6-11 Dishon Jackson (Charlotte), 6-5 guard Nate Heise (Northern Iowa), and 6-10 forward Brandton Chatfield (Seattle) as transfer portal additions.

 Otzelberger also said redshirt freshman Kayden Fish — who entered the portal after the Cyclones’ Sweet 16 loss to Illinois — will return to receive the program’s 13th scholarship for next season.

 Couple all of that with returning stars such as Tamin Lipsey, Curtis Jones, Keshon Gilbert and Milan Momcilovic, among others, along with incoming true freshmen guards Nojus Indrusaitus and Dwayne Pierce, and ISU will likely be highly ranked in advance of the 2024-25 season.

 “We’ve got more depth than we’ve had,” Otzelberger said. “We’ve got experience. We’ve got the ability to play two bigs, or to play four guards. We’ve got a lot of options.”

 So fans may be tempted to pencil in a projected starting lineup, but Otzelberger strongly advises against that. Playing time is earned through grueling summer workouts that begin in June before dovetailing into fall and the final practices in advance of the highly anticipated season to come.

 “(We) return four guys that were all double-figure scorers from last year’s team,” Otzelberger said. “How many teams in the country can say that they return four double-figure scorers? So I think more than anything, my message to the guys when they get here is gonna be the reason we’ve been good is these things: We’ve played hard. We play together. Our defense has been the constant and our offense has been timely enough. I still feel like there are some areas offensively where we can move forward. But it’s not, ‘Hey, chuck it up there,’ it’s more of a, ‘Let’s get more offensive rebounds,’ or, ‘Let’s cut harder.’ The win in the margins (things), let’s do more (of that).”

 The Cyclones have done plenty of the latter in Otzelberger’s first three seasons, reaching two Sweet 16s and advancing to the NCAA Tournament every year. More will be expected this season, of course, but that speaks to the program’s rapid resurgence as well as Otzelberger’s ability to find guys that fit in from the portal as well as from the high school ranks.

 That means Indrusaitus, a four-star 6-4 guard, and Pierce, a skilled 6-4 guard/forward, could also press for ample playing time despite being green at the college level.

 “There hasn’t been a freshman in our program yet that’s been really good that hasn’t found their way onto the court,” said Otzelberger, whose team also returns versatile 6-7 junior-to-be Demarion Watson. “So I would say even though there (are) a lot of guys seemingly looking for playing time, so far, for three years in our program, if you’re a freshman and you’re really good and you’re ready to play, those guys have played. So the key isn’t, ‘Will we play freshmen?’ The key is, are they good enough and are they ready?”

 Lipsey was all of those things as a freshman, but underwent shoulder surgery after the season. Otzelberger said his recovery process is going well, though, and he should be set to shine again at point guard in his junior season.

 “His body probably needs a little time off,” Otzelberger said. “A month with the sling, a month with the rehab deal, and then a month returning to play. But if anything with Tamin, his body takes such a beating (so) some time off is only probably going to benefit him in the long run because he doesn’t need to take any more pounding.”

 That pounding will resume soon enough as the offseason dissolves into preseason workouts and the onset of nonconference play. The Cyclones could be ranked in the top five before the 2024-25 season tips off, but nothing will change in terms of their preparation. Once that begins in earnest in June, the “what” will supersede the “who” — and strict adherence to everyday habits will form the framework for long-term success.

 “I think as time evolves you understand what’s worked for our program, what fits, so you have a greater degree of confidence in the ability to put that together,” Otzelberger said. “You know what you’re listening for in recruiting and you know what you’re looking for.”