AMES – What’s the value of a Sweet 16?
It’s different for every program, obviously. Making the second weekend of the NCAA tournament means something different to Duke than it does to St. Peter’s.
The circumstances make a big difference, too.
Winning two games in the Big Dance meant something different to Iowa State in 2022 than it did in 2016.
The benefit this time around for the Cyclones was largely reputational. After the downward trend of the last years of Steve Prohm’s tenure, reaching its nadir with the 2-22 debacle, reestablishing Iowa State as a high-level basketball program was simply the highest accomplishment that first-year coach TJ Otzelberger could have hoped for.
And he, along with the players that made it possible, did it.
Hines: TJ Otzelberger building future Iowa State roster in mold of Fred Hoiberg’s teams
So what’s that mean going forward for a program less interested in one year of surprising success and more fixed on returning to the perennial contender status it established in the previous decade and had enjoyed intermittently throughout the last 40 years?
“Certainly, we’re highly competitive. We want to win every game in front of us,” Otzelberger told the Register. “But there’s really two things going on here.
“There’s maximizing the potential of the group you have, and then building the program for that long-term sustainability.”
As Iowa State prepares to open Year 2 under Otzelberger, perhaps the most interesting thing to consider is how those two tracks operate separately and where they converge.
Both are greatly influenced by one of the most dramatic turnarounds in recent college basketball history.
It’s worth remembering where Iowa State was in March 2021.
The Cyclones just finished under .500 for the third time in four seasons. Not only that, they were riding a program-record 18-game losing streak having not won a conference game for the first time since the 1930s while posting the fewest wins in a season since the 1920s.
A year later, Otzelberger took a completely revamped – and mostly unloved – roster to a 22-13 record and the program’s first Sweet 16 since 2016.
They did it despite an offense that ranked 171st nationally, according to KenPom.com, and without any obvious NBA draft talent.
It was on the strength of a top-five defense and the maximization of players that had been overlooked, underutilized or both elsewhere.
What Iowa State didn’t have as it finished its Sweet 16 run, though, was roster continuity.
The only player that could be considered a cornerstone, freshman point guard Tyrese Hunter, was a surprise transfer to Texas in the offseason.
So what good was a Sweet 16 if only four role players returned to build off it?
“Last year, it was a new team,” Gabe Kalscheur, a senior and Iowa State’s defensive tone-setter, said. “This year we have the core guys that have been through it. We have guys that have been part of what this program was last year, and can build on and be better than it.”
Perhaps more than that, though, the Cyclones have credibility.
The transfer portal
They have credibility to trust a defense-first, offense-hopefully approach when much of the basketball world is focused on pace, space and points. That allowed them to go into the highly-competitive transfer portal and search for something different than many of their peers.
“When you look at the guys in the transfer portal that are the most highly coveted, they’re certainly guys that are offensively proven but not only proven but proven at the highest level,” Otzelberger said. “Those are the guys that are in ask. Those are guys wanting to go to blue blood schools and go to the programs that are preseason top 10 and all those sorts of things.
“For us, we’re looking at not necessarily what we can’t get or what we can’t be, but what we can be. When you find guys that have a track record of playing for winning programs, that have done effort-based things, you feel like those are going to translate to your program.”
That allowed Iowa State to land Osun Osunniyi, the two-time Atlantic 10 defensive player of the year at St. Bonaventure. And Hason Ward, who was among the A-10’s best shot blockers during his time at VCU. Jaren Holmes, too came over from the Bonnies too, a physical, big guard who is the best bet to fill Izaiah Brockington’s shoes as a surprise scorer.
Iowa State was able to attract those players because of that Sweet 16 season, and the Cyclones can be confident they can win with players more proven defensively than offensively because they’ve done it already.
“We have confidence as a coaching staff and as a program overall that we can put a defensive and rebounding plan together to give us a chance to be successful,” Otzelberger said. “That is the challenge when you have new players. It’s not just finding out what they do individually, but it’s putting them together collectively so their strengths can accentuate each other collectively. “
So while Iowa State figures to once again have trouble offensively, the Cyclones appear to have the plan and personnel to have a real shot of making it work.
“Those guys have come from hard-playing, mid-major programs that have had success, that have had some identity on the defensive end,” Otzelberger said of his transfers. “Certainly has been by design why we’ve done that.”
Examining Iowa State basketball’s big recruiting win with top-40 prospect Milan Momcilovic
So while last year’s success helped Iowa State define and assemble itself ahead of Year 2, the real magic of that Sweet 16 run may be further off in the distance.
Otzelberger may have smashed traditional expectations for what a program can achieve in Year 1 of a rebuild, but, below the surface, he’s really following a traditional blueprint.
“Last year what we set out to do was establish pride in the program, work hard every single day, play Cyclone basketball in such a way that our fan base and everybody can get behind us because of the passion and enthusiasm we’re playing with ,” he said.
Those were pretty modest goals that were achieved and far exceeded. While all that was going on, Otzelberger and his staff put together about as good of recruiting class as a program could come off a 2-22 season.
They landed two program-building pieces in Ames native Tamin Lipsey and Eli King of Minnesota, a pair of well-regarded guards who Iowa State envisions as being part of their future success over years. Then there’s Demarion Watson, a raw wing with polishing needed but upside that could put him in the NBA.
That combination is on Page 1 of the program-building playbook. It’s a group that is just what Iowa State needed, but not out of the ordinary, either.
The 2023 class, though? That’s something different.
The recruiting class
If Iowa State has a ho-hum Year 1 under Otzelberger, it’s hard to envision the Cyclones currently having the sixth-ranked recruiting class in the country.
Four- and five-star players don’t typically join eight-win programs.
But the Cyclones weren’t a run-of-the-mill rebuild. They were a Sweet 16 team.
“Just kind of see the path they’re building already,” top-35 recruit Milan Momcilivic said this summer. “Building that path, setting the vision for the future and how we can move forward and hopefully get past the Sweet 16.”
That led Momcilivic, a highly-talented 6-foot-8 scoring scholar, to commit in July. That was followed by five-star big and Waukee product Omaha Biliew joining just days later.
Combined with top-150 guard Jelani Hamilton and a late-rising top-200 Kayden Fish, Iowa State has what may be the best recruiting class in school history.
“The most important thing is you’re continuing to bring in that young talent – develop and retain those young guys,” Otzelberger, who cannot comment on 2023 recruits, said. “As much as we have hit the transfer portal to get some guys that can give us that pride, that credibility, the maturity that you need to play in our conference and the schedule we have, at the same time you want to keep stacking those recruiting classes underneath.
“That’s what really will build your long-term success.”
So how does the immediate and long-term converge for Iowa State when it takes the floor Nov. 7, against UIPUI to open the 2022-23 campaign?
The Cyclones figure to once again be picked in the bottom half of the Big 12 with a younger roster and lots of newcomers.
But that’s only marginally different than the group that was the unanimous pick to finish last in the league a year ago.
“Four guys (returning from last year), immediately when we start our summer workout plan, they can speak to the new guys about how hard we work and what we invest every single day and how they’ve seen that work for them,” Otzelberger said. “Those guys can be the spokesperson for ‘This works, we’ve lived it. We believe in it and we’re confident in it.’”
Last year’s success allows this year’s team a measure of pride and validation they wouldn’t have otherwise been privy to.
“We had success, let’s build on it,” Kalscheur said. “We’re probably going to be counted out again, but we like that. We like that chip on our shoulder.
“This is who we are. We’re a real deal team. This is Iowa State. This is what our culture is.”
That’s what it is now. And, Iowa State hopes, continues on into a future made possible by these teams that few expected much from, but delivered plenty.
Travis Hines covers Iowa State University sports for the Des Moines Register and Ames Tribune. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or (515) 284-8000. Ffollow him at @TravisHines21.