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MILWAUKEE — As T.J. Otzelberger walked up to the stage in the media interview room and took a seat, the moderator jokingly asked if he needed two cups of water instead of the standard one NCAA-branded cup of water.
Iowa State’s first-year head coach, with his hoarse voice, said he “might need more” water than that as he settled in for the start of the press conference.
Otzelberger will likely need to keep taking those extra waters as his team prepares for an unexpected Sweet 16 appearance.
It’s quite the transformation for an Iowa State team that went from winning two total games in 2020-21 to winning two games in the 2022 NCAA Tournament alone.
“What we did set out to do is restore pride to a program that I love so much,” Otzelberger said.
To say the run was improbable would be an understatement.
The Cyclones were picked dead-last in the Big 12’s preseason coaches poll, and they were underdogs in both NCAA Tournament games. There’s no precedent for a team doing what Otzelberger and Iowa State did in one season.
The style of play that got the Cyclones to this stage might not belong in an art museum, but Otzelberger doesn’t care.
“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. “They're winners. … We're just going to keep being who we can be.”
The Cyclones won’t blow away any team with hot shooting. Their 32-percent 3-point percentage is one of lowest among teams still in the NCAA Tournament.
They didn’t reach 60 points in either of their NCAA Tournament wins.
“Fifty-four points is not like a scoring clinic,” forward Aljaz Kunc said. “We played hard defense, we were physical and I think that has been like a theme the whole season.”
But they proved they can win with defense. A lot of defense.
A Wisconsin team that turns the ball over at the lowest rate in the country had 17 turnovers, and that wasn’t an anomaly.
“We knew coming into the game that we just had to be who we are, who we've been this whole season,” guard Gabe Kalscheur said.
The Cyclones have moved up to fifth in KenPom’s adjusted defensive efficiency.
Iowa State’s defense also forces turnovers on about one of every four possessions, and its 28.7-percent 3-point shooting allowed is one of the best rates in the country.
“If something’s not going right on offense, then I can always rely on my defense,” said Kalscheur, who transferred to Iowa State from Minnesota. “That’s what we all buy into.”
When Otzelberger had to retool after arriving in Ames and losing much of the existing roster, he recruited with that identity in mind.
“We wanted to make sure they knew what we were going to be about,” Otzelberger said. “They knew what they were signing up for, they knew what our identity would be. We believe that if you play hard defensively and you dictate that, you can control the game.”
Otzelberger also pointed to the team’s “work habits” as a necessity to reach the Sweet 16 stage.
“To get here, you've got to have the work habits, but you've also got to have low ego,” Otzelberger said. “You've got to have guys that are production-driven and that they buy in.”
Kunc said the process began June 10 — the first day of summer workouts.
“We were a bunch of guys who never saw each other play before,” Kunc said. “The coaches did an amazing job for us to buy in.”
The team might not be totally bought in yet on the 5 a.m. soccer-field workouts in the summer, though. Were those worth it? “No,” Kunc said definitively and with a laugh. “Put that in bold.”
Looking ahead to Friday’s Sweet 16 game, the hoarse Otzelberger will need some help from Jayce, Olivia and Stella for him to have some voice by then.
“Hopefully my three young ones that are all under 7 can help cooperate with that,” Otzelberger said. “If anybody can, make sure they’re doing all the right things so their dad can save his voice a little bit.”
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