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Iowa State is Playing Good Basketball Right Now: Here’s Why

Defense, a star freshman, and timely performances have fans focused in on TJ Otzelberger’s brand new team

Syndication: The Ames Tribune Nirmalendu Majumdar/Ames Tribune / USA TODAY NETWORK

Iowa State’s undefeated start to the season has been validated. After taking down number 25 Xavier by 12 last Wednesday, the Cyclones matched up against the 9th ranked Memphis Tigers on Friday night at the Barclays Center in New York City. Iowa State tamed the Tigers by using a combination of stingey defense and efficient offense. Memphis’ litany of high-powered recruits struggled to attack the Cyclones defense and couldn’t stay in front of Gabe Kalscheur.

This new and improved Iowa State team has shocked pretty much everyone outside of the walls of the Sukup practice facility:

We know the Clones are playing great defense, but how have they been so effective at forcing turnovers?


Iowa State is currently turning teams over 26.4% of the time, which is good for 12th best in the entire country right now. They have the 11th highest steal percentage, and the clip below showcases why:

What has impressed me so much about the Cyclone defense so far this year has been how they attack and trap the short corners. In the above clip, you see Tristan Enaruna ball deny the Tiger’s Alex Lomax to start the possession. DeAndre Williams then makes the decision to try and take the much smaller and quicker Tyrese Hunter off the dribble towards the mid-baseline, but is subsequently forced to pick up his dribble as Caleb Grill rotates over to initiate a trap.

Meanwhile, the weak side Iowa State defenders all slide into place to wall off any quick pass attempts. The goal when trapping is always to force an ill-advised pass across the entirety of the floor to give defenders time to rotate over, and Williams does just that. Gabe Kalscheur is able to step in for an easy interception, and he cans a three on the other end.

Here’s another example of that short corner/post trap: Robert Jones pushes the 6-11 Duren to catch the ball further from the basket, while sliding to Duren’s high side (right) hip. This is to force the big freshman to turn and spin into baseline help, which Tre Jackson provides by leaving his man in the far corner. The entire defense rotates accordingly, but Caleb Grill overextends and Memphis gets what should’ve been an And-One.

After the initial catch, Memphis sends another guy to the elbow and leaks to the post to counter Iowa State’s rotation and provide an outlet if need be for the trapped player to dump the ball off. This is covered up by Kunc but Duren is able to make the cross court pass to start the secondary Iowa State Defensive rotation. Tre Jackson is slightly late to step over and Memphis gets free throws.

Here’s an almost identical play that happens a little later. Memphis iso’s Duren in the low post again, and Conditt pushes on the catch, same as Jones did previously. Duren spins baseline, but Kalchsuer walls off and initiates the trap. Duren takes one dribble and throws a pass right to Tyrese Hunter for the easiest steal of his career.

Iowa State is turning teams over at a 26% clip, good for 12th best in the country. Most of that can be attributed to scheme and coaching, but let’s not discredit the players. They have bought in to a defensive system that relies on toughness, mental focus, and effort.

Tyrese Hunter

While Iowa State’s defensive intensity is certainly the primary reason for their early season success, the emergence of the dynamic freshman Tyrese Hunter has played a major role, as well.

Hunter is averaging 13 PPG, 3.7 RBs, and 5.2 APG on 37% shooting from the field. The Racine, Wisconsin native is getting it done on both ends of the floor. His 6% steal rate leads the Big 12, and his 5.2 assists per game is good for second best in the conference.

Oh, did I mention he’s a freshman?

Hunter has played with a balanced attack: Of his 27 made baskets this season, 19 have been from inside the arc and 8 have been from three point land. Tyrese has a quick trigger when it comes to shooting three’s, and he certainly is not shy to let them fly from deep. Seeing as he’s only played 6 college basketball games, I’ll give him a pass for now.

Hunter is also a dynamic passer willing to create for his teammates. His 33.5% assist rate is good for tops in the Big 12 to go along with his 5 or so assists. I’d like to see Hunter continue to get out in transition when possible. Most of his turnovers seemingly come in the half court when he tries to do too much. That being said, for someone who is brand new to this stage, I’m incredibly impressed with what Tyrese has brought to this team.

The Clones have also been on the receiving end of timely performances from every major contributor this year. Izaiah Brockington had 30 against Xavier, Gabe Kalscheur had 30 against Memphis, Aljaz Kunc (surprise!) had 21 against Grambling State and Tyrese Hunter had 19 against Alabama State. This team has seen multiple individuals lead the way in scoring, but a clear hierarchy exists: Kalscheur and Brockington will likely continue to be the 1A and 1B scoring options, and Hunter will be the tertiary playmaker. These roles seem to be clearly established based on shot/attempt distribution, and are quite obviously working.

I’m very encouraged by what I’ve seen so far this year. The Cyclones have far exceeded everyone’s expectations and are playing an entertaining style of basketball, especially on the defensive end of the floor. This team will continue to be tested, as matchups with Creighton and Iowa loom. In the meantime, enjoy what Otz and co. have put together and remember where things stood at this time last year.