As I’ve sat and watched the Iowa State Men’s Basketball team this year, it’s been an interesting thought exercise trying to put things in perspective as we compare this season to last. Through the ups — a 12-0 start, one of the best in program history — and downs — breaking the record for fewest points scored in Hilton Coliseum — this team has scratched, clawed, and fought for every loose ball along the way. Hilton Magic returned, though it was never really gone, when Izaiah Brockington detonated on Bob Huggins and the West Virginia Mountaineers for 35 points and a miraculous steal and jumper to win the game. This team welcomed in transfer after transfer and had more new faces than the Island of Misfit Toys.
But even through all of the up’s and down’s and new players and old, there’s really only one conclusion to draw as the regular season concludes:
“Year Zero” was an unmitigated success for TJ Otzelberger and the Men’s Basketball program.
On March 15th, Coach Steve Prohm and Iowa State parted ways. His 6 years in Ames included two Big 12 Tournament Championships, a Sweet Sixteen berth, and countless big wins and moments, though none big enough to save him from a combined 14-44 final two seasons. Only three days later, Jamie Pollard stepped in front of a camera and informed Cyclone Nation that TJ Otzelberger was the next head coach at Iowa State. The fit made sense as Otz had spent time in Ames under the previous two coaches as assistants for each. “Their home away from home,” remarked Pollard on-screen, referring to Otz and his family.
TJ’s desire to be in Ames was never questioned, and his loyalty never wavered. “We bleed cardinal and gold,” he said during his introductory press conference.
Fan reaction was tempered, but nonplussed. Some wondered how the hire only took three days and conspiracies fluttered. Did Pollard have this planned before the end of the year? Was he giving anyone else a chance at this hire? Did he record each video announcing the departure of Steve Prohm and the hiring of Otz on the same day?
The expected roster turnover finally hit during the summertime as Xavier Foster and Blake Hinson, — among others — were no longer with the team. But freshman star Tyrese Hunter stayed, honoring his commitment to Steve Prohm and promising to come play for Otz. Next came the transfers - Robert Jones, Jaz Kunc, Caleb Grill, Tristan Enaruna and two Big 10 transfers: Gabe Kalscheur, from Minnesota, and a springy lefty forward with a bouncy jumper, Izaiah Brockington.
Who knew how this team would fit together after playing 0 minutes with each other the previous year? How would Otz create the perfect culture to welcome in so many new faces after the worst season in school history? How do you “rebuild” Hilton Magic?
Smothering, stingy, in-your-face, younger-brother-who-just-won’t-leave-you-alone... Defense.
Iowa State climbed into the top 5 on KenPom in Adjusted Defense as the year went on. It started with a pair of demolitions in Brooklyn against Xavier and Memphis, and ignited a raucous crowd in Hilton as the Cyclones blew out Iowa by 20. Win after win came on the back of a defense hell-bent on making opposing teams miserable for 40 minutes each night. Turnovers stacked and so did the wins and by the time non-conference play was over, the Cyclones were 12-0, one of the best starts in program history.
Baylor offered Iowa State’s first test of the year as the eventual regular season champs were able to overcome 18 turnovers inside of an electric Hilton Coliseum to hand the Clones their first loss of the year. A muddy, windy, cold, sloppy game a few days later against Tech gave Iowa State their first Big 12 win before they dropped 4 of their next 5. Turns out winning each night in the Big 12 is hard.
Iowa State’s offense struggled to find a rhythm, breaking the 70 point barrier only once in their lone win against Texas during that 5-game stretch. Points were difficult to come by, and Iowa State’s offense was having as much trouble scoring as the defense was at stopping everyone else. A fanbase so used to threes and dunks pivoted to a made up stat coined by the team: Kills. The defense gets a stop, then another, then another. Strung together in a row, you have yourself a kill.
A win against the old Telephone Trophy foe, Missouri, and an overtime thriller in Stillwater (sounds familiar) put Iowa State back on track before the offense not only hit a wall, but crashed into it at full speed. 61 points in a loss to Kansas, 41 points *gulp* in a loss to Texas, 63 against West Virginia, and 69 in overtime against the Purple Cats after a blown lead late sunk the Cyclones.
But the fight never wavered. Otz dusted off Izaiah Brockington from the garage like an old Ferrari and let him fire at will. The Penn State transfer started to turn heads, even as the losses piled up. 27 points against K-State, 20 in a win at TCU, 22 in a demolition against Oklahoma. Teams knew Brockington only went left, that he only wanted to shoot from mid-range, but it didn’t matter. Brockington slowly began to move himself into the “Great Iowa State Transfer Debate” before igniting against West Virginia and sealing his place as one of the best players in the conference. He had his defining moment — a steal and awkward fadeaway to drown West Virginia — and now a Big 12 Newcomer of the Year award and a spot on the All Big 12 Team.
As defenses centered their attention around Brockington, another star began to emerge. Tyrese Hunter began to dazzle and delight as he knifed his way through Big 12 play. Hunter’s first name and connection to Wisconsin drew lofty expectations as he stepped foot onto campus with a lot to prove. Fans didn’t have to look beyond his first game in the cardinal and gold to realize this kid was special. An 11 point, 6 rebound, 5 assist, 4 steal performance raised eyebrows to begin the year, but it was his play throughout the season that sealed his fate as another addition in the Iowa State Point Guard Collection. The eventual Big 12 Freshman of the Year not only sold this season as a win, he provided a look into a hopeful future.
Familiar faces like Tre Jackson and Jalen Walker drifted in an out of the lineup, but George Conditt’s passion and energy exceeded even his own play at times. The big center pranced around the floor with enthusiasm and joy, something missing the past two years. His desire to remain with the program and to grow as a player was more fun to watch than any win we had this year. George was the lone holdover from the last Big 12 Tournament Championship, and deserves every bit of praise for his attitude and commitment to this team and university.
Gabe Kalscheur, Caleb Grill, Jaz Kunc, and Robert Jones all provided signature moments. Kalscheur’s 30 points against Memphis showed off his scoring ability and ability to get hot. Caleb Grill’s triumphant return in a Cyclone uniform came against a full house in Omaha against Creighton to the tune of 16 points. His three against Kansas at Allen Fieldhouse was maybe the biggest of the year, had it not been incorrectly ruled a two. Jaz’ 19 point performance against Kansas State was impressive, despite the loss, and Robert Jones will forever be the cleanup man, methodically rebounding and playing good defense.
Each transfer had a role to play, and they all filled it to the best of their ability. No one should question the dedication each new face has brought to a fanbase who knew next to nothing about them before the year began.
So here we are, at the precipice of postseason play, where expectations are lofty and seasons are made... Or are they?
This team has already accomplished so much more than what was ever dreamed of. Did you know they were picked dead last in the preseason Big 12 poll? I bet you did, because announcers bring it up every game! Did you know that Iowa State’s turnaround from 2 wins to 20 (and hopefully counting) is one of the greatest in NCAA history? Did you know that Otz should’ve been the Big 12 Co-Coach of the Year with Mark Adams instead of Scott Drew? You know I’m right.
This team has nothing left to prove. They have turned the worst season in school history into a shining moment and put Iowa State back on the map. After the dust settles and the streamers have been picked up, this team will be looked fondly upon. March can make or break a season, but not for this team. They’ll be remembered for everything else, and the long journey back. Most of all, they’ll forever be known as the team that brought the Magic back — not by three’s and dunks and fast breaks — but by defense, determination, toughness, and heart.