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Unapologetically Winning: How Iowa State’s Defense Powered Them to the Sweet Sixteen

Today’s word of the day? Defense

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament First Round Milwaukee - Iowa St. vs LSU Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

TJ Otzelberger didn’t mince words after Sunday night’s rock fight against the Wisconsin Badgers in Milwaukee that sent the Cyclones to the Sweet Sixteen:

“We’re not going to apologize for how we have to win and we’re not going to apologize for aesthetically how it may look,” Otzelberger said. “[The players] are winners, I’m proud of them. We’re just going to keep being who we can be.”

Iowa State’s 54-49 win in front of the Wisconsin faithful embodied that mantra to a T. Or should I say D?

Iowa State held the Badgers to their lowest point total since 2018 and forced the nation’s second-best Turnover % team to commit a season-high 17 turnovers. Their previous high this year? 13. The Cyclones were so good they forced Wisconsin to commit more turnovers than the Badgers had made field goals (14).

Iowa State set school records for steals in an NCAA Tournament game against LSU in their first round matchup and have forced 35 combined turnovers in two games. They wrecked havoc on the Tigers offense, allowing only 54 points and making a distracted LSU team want to geaux home.

The Cyclones have not only forced a litany of turnovers, they’ve also just flat-out made life hell for opposing offenses. LSU and Wisconsin shot a combined 6-41 from 3-point land and each finished well below their season averages from the field. Superstars haven’t fared well against the Cardinal and Gold, too. Johnny Davis, the Big 10 Player of Year, was held below his season average of 19 points per game to 17 points on 4-16 shooting. Davis didn’t just work to get shots off, he toiled, labored, cursed and sweat his way into a 25% shooting performance as Izaiah Brockington and Gabe Kalscheur made his life miserable. Kalscheur, in particular, forced Davis into difficult shots and added to Davis’ season-high 4 turnovers. The former Minnesota Golden Gopher didn’t mince words when talking about his old rivalry with the Badgers.

“Really never liked Wisconsin, to be honest,” Kalscheur said. “I mean I have family from there, but I’m a Minnesota-raised man.”

Well, maybe Kalscheur should play against old rivals more often. The Senior guard exploded for 22 points, his second highest point total of the year, and hit big shot after big shot to keep Iowa State within striking distance. Kalscheur was ultra-effective from inside the arc where he shot 60% on 9-15 shooting and had a few highlight-worthy plays, including bodying Johnny Davis for a layup and drawing a key foul on an and-one late in the game. Kalscheur played with confidence and swagger, something that Iowa State fans had seen once every few weeks. Notably, his 30-point performance against Memphis way back in November comes to mind as his best game of the season... Until Sunday, where Kalscheur not only held the Big 10 Player of the Year in check, but carried the Cyclones when the offense was just stagnant enough.

Ultimately, this team goes where the defense goes — we all knew that, but now the rest of the country is finding out just how good they’ve been all year. Iowa State is currently the owner of the 5th best defense in the country, according to KenPom, and has resided in the top 20 for a good portion of the year. But life in the Big 12 has painted a sour picture as to how this band of transfers and newcomers has been able to put on such a defensive clinic so far in March.

The reality is that the Big 12 was just that good this year. 50% of NCAA Tournament Big 12 teams advanced to the Sweet Sixteen after the conference dominated the first round by an enormous collective margin of victory. A perfect 6-0 start to the tournament punctuated Big 12 superiority before Baylor, Texas, and TCU bowed out before the Sweet Sixteen.

After losing in the Big 12 Tournament two weeks ago to Texas Tech, T.J. Otzelberger had this to say about playing in the Big 12, “I don’t know who we will play [in the NCAA Tournament] and how that will all go, but I do know that we’re playing in the best league in the country. We play the teams that are the most physical. We play in the league that’s the most physical, so my guess would be whoever we play outside the league, it may not be that same level of defensive intensity that we see night in and night out. At the same time, we’ve got to control, value the basketball and play the aggressor.”

Wisconsin struggled with Iowa State’s level of physicality on Sunday and LSU’s 6th rated defense could barely match the Cyclones as they treated each possession like a 2am brawl in a dive bar. But for Iowa State, this was just another game. The Cyclones have played against defenses currently ranked 1st (3 times), 4th (twice), 6th, 12th (twice), 15th (twice), 16th (twice), and 19th. Before playing against Iowa State on Sunday, the Badgers had only seen exactly two top-20 defenses (Houston & St. Mary’s) all year. Faring slightly better, LSU saw the 3rd (twice), 8th, and 14th (3 times) ranked defenses.

If you’re keeping score at home, that’s 13 games played against top-20 defenses for the Clones, and a combined 8 instances for LSU and Wisconsin. For the curious: Miami has squared off against only 1 school inside the top-20 (Auburn) as the ACC’s highest ranked defense is currently UNC at 42.

So yeah, it’s a safe assumption the night-in-night-out grind of the Big 12 prepared Iowa State for the tournament.

Much like the Big 12’s run this tournament, Iowa State’s turnaround from last year to this year has been well-documented by pretty much everyone (myself included). But the defensive numbers alone are staggering.

Iowa State is better statistically in each of the following categories:

  • Points Allowed (a full 14 points per game better!!!)
  • Opponent made Field Goals
  • Opponent Field Goal %
  • Opponent 3 Point %
  • Opponent 2 Point %
  • Turnovers
  • Steals
  • Total Defensive Rebounds

So yeah, there’s been some improvement and if you’re looking for additional context, Iowa State’s current defensive position at number 5 is the only top-40 finish the Cyclones have had since Wayne Morgan’s baggy shorts crew in 2005 finished 9th (side note: that team at one point lost 6 straight then immediately won 7 in a row, culminating in the Stinson teardrop in Allen Fieldhouse. Crazy!).

The Cyclones are on a no-frills, all-expenses paid vacation to the second weekend of the tournament. No one thought that this was even remotely possible a year ago. Hell, by the time Friday rolls around TJ Otzelberger will have only been the Iowa State Men’s Basketball Coach for 372 days!

It’s been a wild ride, and one that hopefully doesn’t come to an end on Friday night in the Windy City. Iowa State has a real chance to make the Elite Eight for the first time since 2000 and just needs one more elite defensive performance to do so. But really, those “elite” performances for this team are really just “Another Game” type efforts. Iowa State is going to continue to make life difficult for opposing offenses, grind out stops, and not apologize for the way they win.