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Step Into My Office: TJ Otzelberger

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Our first offseason look at what Otz did this past year and where the program is headed

NCAA Basketball: Big 12 Conference Tournament-Texas Tech vs Iowa State Amy Kontras-USA TODAY Sports

To put a bow on this college basketball season, we’re once again diving into a classic series of ours where we ask each returning Cyclone to “step into my office” to review the season that was, and take a shot at what next season could look like.

In this edition of “step into my office” we look at Coach TJ Otzelberger’s overall performance from this season, which included a visit to the Sweet Sixteen for the first time since 2016.

Season at a Glance (22-13, 7-11)

Iowa State exceeded all expectations during the 2021-22 season. Fresh off a 2 win season that had fans clamoring for change, Jamie Pollard pulled the plug on Steve Prohm and hired his ole’ pal TJ Otzelberger in mid-March of last year.

Coach Otz had a busy offseason, bringing in 6 transfers and selling Prohm recruit Tyrese Hunter on staying. Otz and his staff were able to bring in high major contributors that were impactful from the get-go. Specifically, Izaiah Brockington and Gabe Kalscheur performed at high levels throughout the year, and were key pieces to Iowa State’s Sweet Sixteen run.

The Cyclones began the 2021-22 season by breezing through non-conference play without a loss. The 12-0 start included wins over Memphis, Xavier, Creighton, and an absolute demolition of Iowa inside Hilton Coliseum.

Conference play brought the Clones back to reality as they stumbled into a 1-3 start, which included one of the bloodiest “basketball” games I have ever seen: A 51-47 home win against Texas Tech that included Iowa State’s second most turnovers on the season.

Iowa State had an up-and-done rest of the conference season, and ultimately were taken to a farm upstate against Texas Tech in the first round of the Big 12 Tournament in Kansas City.

The NCAA Tournament was much kinder to Otz and co. After being selected as an 11 seed, Iowa State’s bar fight brawl with LSU sent the Clones to the 2nd round to face off against Wisconsin in a de facto home game for the Badgers in Milwaukee. The nation’s leaders in not turning the ball over couldn’t handle Iowa State’s defensive pressure, and the Cyclones advanced to the Sweet Sixteen after a 54-49 victory. Iowa State’s season ended the following Friday, as Miami picked apart the Iowa State defense and forced the Cyclone offense to commit 16 turnovers.

The Numbers

Offensively, Iowa State’s .949 points per possession ranked 281st in the NCAA. The Cyclones also sported the 171st best offense according to KenPom, and set a Hilton Coliseum arena record for fewest points scored in a 36-53 loss to Oklahoma State. The Iowa State offense was stagnant and predictable at times, and largely centered around Izaiah Brockington firing contested midrange jumpers. Despite IB’s incredible shooting, the Cyclones had difficulties generating quality looks and relied heavily on a slow pace (226th adj. tempo) to drag opponents into the mud with them. Iowa State only broke the 70-point mark 5 times during Big 12 plays, which was one less than last year’s Big 12 campaign, though this is largely due to Otz’s insistence on playing a slower style of basketball than Steve Prohm’s jet tempo teams.

Iowa State’s defensive numbers were some of the best in school history, as the Cyclones finished the year with the 5th best defense in the country, according to KenPom. Iowa State’s ability to force turnovers was the primary reason for their postseason success, and the Clones were able to force 19 against LSU and 16 against Wisconsin.

The “No Middle” style of defense that brought Chris Beard such immense success at Texas Tech made it’s way to Ames and allowed Iowa State to compete on a nightly basis with effort and positioning. The “No Middle” defense involves forcing ballhandlers towards the sideline and baseline to act as an additional defender to force lower percentage mid-range shots. This style of defense invites the offense to dribble baseline using footwork and positioning, with the end goal of a trap or aggressive help to attempt to force a turnover.

Note: I would highly encourage anyone interested in the mechanics of “No Middle” to watch this breakdown from Jordan Sperber.

Iowa State’s defensive rotations and timing were spectacular all year. In particular, Iowa State’s ability to “shock” opponents who were not used to seeing such an aggressive style was largely the reasoning for their 15-1 record against non-conference foes. In particular, NCAA Tournament teams such as Iowa, Wisconsin, and LSU all put up turnover numbers that were 3rd, 1st and 3rd highest for each respective school this season.

2022-2023 Season Outlook

It’s no secret what Otz needs to do this summer to attempt to get back to the Sweet Sixteen. This off-season's focus will be on bringing in new talent via the transfer portal, and focusing on improvement on the offensive end of the floor. The Sweet Sixteen matchup against Miami proved what we already knew: The Iowa State offense could not support the defense on a consistent basis. Throughout the year, having a strong offense or strong defense will allow teams to wrack up wins, but ultimately there is a hard stop in the Tournament at some point. We have now seen an elite offense fall to an elite defense in 2016 when Iowa State ran into the Virginia buzzsaw, and now had an elite defensive team in this year’s squad unable to score on a relatively average Miami scoring defense. Balance will be key at this staff looks to build on the foundation this year has provided.

From a recruiting standpoint, Iowa State’s 5th ranked class in the Big 12 will hopefully provide immediate support for next year. Eli King, in particular, has fans buzzing over this display of athleticism:

The 6’3” guard should hopefully provide help on the offensive end of the floor, but also provide assistance on defense, as well.

Otz also managed to lock up Ames native Tamin Lipsey, who is the 2nd ranked player in the state of Iowa. Lipsey should be able to spell Tyrese Hunter at the PG position and led the Little Cyclones to a State Championship. Even more impressive, however, was Lipsey’s triple double in the State Championship game to lead his team to a 31 point victory.

Demarion Watson, a 6’6” forward from Minneapolis, rounds out this class as a three star prospect.

Realistically, next year’s expectations should remain relatively low. A return trip to the Sweet Sixteen isn’t expected, but a chance at an NCAA Tournament should be the goal as Otz works to build out future recruiting classes. All-in-all, there is little reason to doubt what TJ has been able to do, especially considering where expectations were prior to this season. Otz thrives on the recruiting trail, and I also expect him to make a splash in the transfer portal this off-season.