116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
AMES — They wobbled bowling balls down well-oiled wooden lanes. Some produced strikes. Others crawled cruelly into the gutter.
Everything but the scorecard stood paramount for Iowa State’s new-look and suddenly Top 25 men’s basketball team as players began bonding off the court in June in rented shoes instead of their sleek, sport-specific kicks.
“It really started in summertime,” said Penn State transfer guard Izaiah Brockington, who helped the Cyclones (6-0) beat then-No. 25 Xavier and then-No. 9 Memphis by double digits en route to a championship in the NIT Season Tip-Off last week in Brooklyn, N.Y. “Just hanging out off the court, the coaches setting up little things for us to do together off the court, going bowling, trying to go to movies together, making sure that we eat breakfast every morning together, just to have a sense of camaraderie, and to really get to know people, and make sure nobody's left out.
“It translates onto the court. Our enjoyment of each other off the court is translating on the court.”
That’s almost an understatement for the No. 19 Cyclones — who face Arkansas Pine-Bluff (1-7) at 7 p.m. Wednesday in Hilton Coliseum (ESPN+).
ISU won a total of two games last season and went winless in Big 12 play. That cost Steve Prohm his coaching job and prompted Iowa State Director of Athletics Jamie Pollard to bring in T.J. Otzelberger to lead the program he had served twice as an assistant.
Otzelberger and his staff completely overhauled the Cyclones’ roster, bringing in transfers such as Brockington, Aljaz Kunc (via Washington State), Gabe Kalscheur (via Minnesota), Caleb Grill (who came from UNLV along with Otzelberger), Tristan Enaruna (via Kansas) and Robert Jones (via Denver) to help build around highly-touted freshman point guard Tyrese Hunter.
Few knew one another. Fewer still knew what to expect. So they bowled. They broke bread. They became friends as they became teammates — and that’s one reason why a relatively short-term bond has wrought astonishing early-season success.
“I feel like the confidence has always been there,” said Hunter, who is the only player in the country averaging at least 13 points, five assists, three rebounds and three steals per game. “And it started with T.J. our first week here. He just told us he's gonna build that in us. Just knowing that your coach has trust and confidence in you, that feels good out there not having to worry about looking over your shoulder if you make a mistake or anything like that. So that really started with TJ and then just us in general — my job is to make sure I’m getting people good shots. But also make sure everybody’s energy is up on the court, everybody’s feeling good and having confidence.”
That starts on the defensive end — as Otzelberger pledged on media day it would.
The Cyclones rank 15th nationally in turnovers forced per game (19.2) and easily toppled Xavier, 82-70, along with Memphis, 78-59, largely because of intense defensive pressure.
“We knew what we had, but to really see it come to fruition like this and to see the ways in which we're doing it — we’re doing it by defense,” said Brockington, who scored 30 points in the win over the Musketeers. “We’re doing it by sticking to our principles. I'm really proud of the guys for sticking with it like this, because we knew that we could play but we just had to go out there and show it every night.”
ISU’s obviously in a “so far, so good” situation, but two big wins to fuel a 6-0 start won’t define this season. Nor will team-building trips to bowling alleys and movie theaters. Consistency, as always, remains key. And it starts with Otzelberger, who keeps it simple on a daily basis.
“I’m not a real exciting or forward-looking person,” he said. “I do the same thing every single day. Our team does the same thing every single day. What I know is our emphasis and focus is (on) being really good in practice today to cultivate the habits. We keep driving home the habits. You’re gonna play to the level of your habits in key moments, so right now it’s great. I’m proud of our guys that we won games that we set out to win, but my interest is in the daily habits, the progress every day and our team continuing to improve.”