I walked into a bar on Friday evening in Kansas City, long after Iowa State’s 41-59 loss to the Pitt Panthers, and immediately spotted a table sporting cardinal and gold. I approached the group and gave a soft smirk and nod, pointing to my ISU polo. One of the group members lifted his beer and nodded in my direction. “I don’t even know what to say.” Another group member chimed in, “That was the most embarrassing loss I think I’ve ever seen.”
I shrugged nonchalantly, “UAB was worse.” The table nodded in agreement, but the point weighed heavily. This performance was now part of Iowa State lore for all the wrong reasons. I said my good byes and shuffled away, the short exchange lingering in the back of my mind the rest of the night.
Before the game Friday, I shared my thoughts on Twitter about the opportunity the Cyclones had. I was at peace with the season potentially ending. It had been a great year, with plenty of fun wins and moments. The Otz era was well ahead of schedule and if you had polled fans prior to the season, I’d guess 80% would’ve been happy with a tournament appearance. Otz had pieced together a team made up of a hodgepodge of transfers, nomads, and seemingly replaced a talented PG with one more eager to stay. The team seemed like a close-knit group, and were easy to cheer for, and very likeable. Stylistically they played stingy defense, at a snails pace on offense, and grinded out possessions like they were ACT questions.
Even as early wins mounted (along with a few losses), trends started to emerge. Iowa State was (still) elite at turning teams over, their defense was just as good as it was last year, and the offense, well, still needed work. A 53 point performance against a very good UCONN team, coupled with a 56 point L in Iowa City started to raise eyebrows. “Here we go again.” fans lamented online. But the offense was still capable of prospering, just ask then-number 1 ranked North Carolina, or St. John’s, or even Baylor on New Year’s Eve. The Clones went into Norman and knocked off the Sooners, were raised from the dead by Gabe Kalscheur in Ft. Worth, pounded Texas Tech in Ames, and even gave the defending champs a scare in Allen Fieldhouse.
As Tyrese Hunter and Texas melted down at the hands of Hilton Magic, the steady roar of Iowa State had reached it’s peak decibel level. The Cyclones were 5-1, and even after a loss to OSU on the road and a fun win against a good K-State, were sitting atop the Big 12. Fans salivated as the schedule presented itself with winnable opportunities on paper. But the noise of Iowa State’s rise was too loud, and the Cyclones proceeded to lose 8 out of their next 10 games. Losses came fast, furious, and in ways that even the most sadistic fans couldn’t dream of - A massive blown lead in Lubbock, a foul-fest in Morgantown, an offensive performance at home against OU that was as despicable as it was frustrating. The Clones finished their slide with another loss to West Virginia, and social media began to question Iowa State’s tournament integrity.
The season from Six Flags had reached the bottom of the hill, and trudged upwards with two more wins against Scott Drew and Baylor in Waco and Kansas City. But even then, there was a consensus: Baylor just didn’t matchup well with Iowa State, and the tournament would provide a reprieve from playing in the best conference in the country. As Pitt squeaked by Mississippi State, it was hard not to be excited about the matchup with the Panthers. Iowa State had taken elite offensive teams completely out of their comfort zone, and Pitt was surely the next victim.
As the final buzzer sounded in Greensboro, Iowa State’s stat line laughed right along with the rest of America. 23% from the field, 2/21 from 3, and only 58% from the line. Pitt had taken 19 fewer shots than Iowa State, only made 6 3s, and outrebounded the Cyclones by only 2. But only one thing mattered: 59-41. Season over.
Iowa State had generated shots throughout the game, and the stats backed that up.
‼ SQ UPSET ‼— ShotQuality (@Shot_Quality) March 18, 2023
Actual Score: Iowa St. 41-59 Pittsburgh
ShotQuality Score: Iowa St. 71-63 Pittsburgh
Based on the quality of shots taken:
Iowa St. would win 79% of the time
Pittsburgh would win 21% of the time pic.twitter.com/PTfZlbax5B
Anyone who had watched a game of basketball once in their life could tell you that Iowa State had gone ice-cold at exactly the wrong time. Even as Holmes and Kalscheur managed to get open looks, especially from behind the arc, Iowa State became their own worst nightmare. I don’t have to tell you that ISU’s 14 made FGs marked a season low, nor do I need to remind you that a 23% FG% was the lowest mark of the year, and it would be cruel to also lament that the 2 made 3s also tied a season low.
But the defense was there, just as they always are. A chaotic presence that masked the stench of Iowa State’s offensive performance. Pitt’s 59 points were their second lowest total of the year, their 14 made FGs a season low, their 34% shooting another rock bottom moment for the Panthers’ offense. But no one is perfect, not even the Iowa State defense, and with an aggressive, disorienting playstyle comes downfalls: The Cyclones foul... A lot, and did so in Greensboro. Pitt’s 25 made FTs were a new high for the Panthers. Iowa State had closed the coffin on themselves and Pitt hammered in the nails.
I fired up Elon’s newest venture and scrolled through my feed as Blake Hinson pounded his chest on TV. As always, Cyclone fans had plenty to say, but my thoughts from prior to the game rang true. If you had told me the offense had gone ice cold and we lost to a team that really only played OK, I would have nodded in agreement. The volatility from Iowa State’s offense was simply too great this year. Yes, the Tournament is kind to teams who can do one thing very well, but if it is only one thing that got you this far, March can be painful.
This is neither an indictment of the coaching staff, nor players. We have seen this exact formula work (see: Cyclones, 2022 Sweet Sixteen) but ultimately the current play style limits Iowa State’s ability to string together consistency across the course of the season. Any team can get hot in March, but teams with balance have staying power. Iowa State’s top 10 defense and top 100 offense mark two units in different stratospheres in terms of efficiency. If you need more proof, consider this: 18 of the last 20 NCAA Champions entered the Tournament with top 40 marks in both offensive AND defensive efficiency - A stat commonly cited by your co-worker at the office to make you think he knows just a little bit more than you do. The point still stands: Balance matters and Iowa State doesn’t have it.
However, it’s not that simple. Iowa State lost its top 3 point sniper and an important factor in its perimeter defense. They played for a month without Jaz Kunc, and even lost Jeremiah Williams before the year even began. All of this matters, is a factor, and ultimately a decider in the Cyclones’ fate.
There is no easy answer or simple solution to a question of “Now what?” after a team notches season lows in multiple offensive stats. It’s easy to point fingers and blame coaches or players. In this instance, Iowa State simply went cold at the exact wrong time. The scheme was sound and execution manageable, though the shots just wouldn’t fall.
What I am saying is this: If Iowa State truly wants to continue to climb in the ranks of the NCAA and Big 12, balance will be key in limiting variability. The closer those off-shooting nights are to the top of the barrel, the higher the floor becomes, and fewer times we see a team score less than 50 points. This all starts with recruiting those guys that can help, and Otz seems to have done that. Iowa State’s upcoming recruiting class is dynamic, athletic, and will help steer the offense in the right direction. Tamin Lipsey’s inability to shoot a jump shot will get better with time, but patience will be necessary as he continues to evolve. Another ball-handler in the backcourt in Jeremiah Williams will be a steadying presence, even if he is non-threat from behind the arc. There will be growing pains next year and finding a reliable shooter in the transfer portal is a must, but the reality is that the program has a chance to be in a better position next season than it is today.
It’s difficult to process a loss like the one we saw on Friday. The brief conversation I had at the bar rang in my ears for much longer than I expected. The discourse around a disappointment like this being even close to something like UAB may not prove to be true as we move away from it, but the emotional reaction was warranted. It’s never easy to lose, let alone in a way that made “helplessness” feel like optimism.
As I walked away from the table, the juxtaposition felt even more ridiculous as I thought about it more. This Iowa State team played with House Money all year, and eventually rolled the dice and lost. As far as I’m concerned, the season was an unmitigated success, marked by memorable moments and fun wins. Things don’t have to work out the way you envisioned to accept this, both in life and in sports, and there are plenty of lessons to learn from a moment like this.
Perspective matters, and even a friendly conversation at a bar can help put into context that things aren’t really as bad as they seem.