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AMES — College basketball coaches generally avoid describing any game as a “must win.”
That is, until they must.
Iowa State head coach T.J. Otzelberger finds himself in that urgent position entering Saturday’s 3 p.m. matchup between the Cyclones (16-8, 3-8 Big 12) and Kansas State (12-11, 4-7) at Hilton Coliseum.
“I would say every game at this point, for us, you could put in the must win category,” said Otzelberger, whose team has lost five of its past six Big 12 games while dropping to the bottom of the standings. “We certainly did a great job in non-league play going 13-0 and even with some impactful wins at the start of league play, but ...
“... Obviously, it’s not a secret we’d like to play in the NCAA tournament. In order to do that, there’s still some games we need to win. How many? I don’t know the exact amount.”
No one does, but it’s widely believed the Big 12 is so strong that a team could advance to the tourney with a 7-11 regular season league record. If that’s the case, the Cyclones obviously need to go 4-3 at worst in their final seven conference games. That’s doable, but difficult — as the 3-8 mark so far attests.
“What we need to do is find it within ourselves to look at what we have in front of us, the joy that we can play with, the energy we can play with, the enthusiasm we need to play with,” Otzelberger said. “Embrace that — and that’s what we can do. We’ve proven that we can do it, but it’s a different gut punch and you have to dig deep and find that resiliency when things aren’t going your way, or haven’t gone your way ... recently for us.”
Being resilient becomes less likely as bodies get banged up and an already depth-challenged team continues to grind through a demanding conference schedule. That’s why Otzelberger said everything will be on the table — including lineup changes — as the regular season winds down.
“What I’m looking for right now from all our guys is that energy, that enthusiasm, that energy,” Otzelberger said. “And that, to qualify, (is) urgency to pressure the ball, urgency to take care of the ball, urgency to rebound the ball and get 50-50 balls. What you’ll see as we move forward is the guys that are doing those things the most will be the guys that we count on.
“I think we’re at the point of the year where nobody’s necessarily entitled to anything. So you’re gonna see, probably, different rotations. You could see different starting lineups. You could see different guys coming off the bench at different times. I know through the first 23 games it was pretty consistent and predictable. I would say that right now things are going to be less predictable.”
Case in point: Athletic, but previously sparingly-used guard Jaden Walker.
The 6-foot-5 sophomore scored six points and snared three steals in 22 minutes in Wednesday’s 79-63 loss at West Virginia. He’d played a total of 16 minutes before that, but adds needed depth and length for the Cyclones as they enter must-win mode.
“I think he deserved the opportunity and I think he played really well against West Virginia,” ISU forward Aljaz Kunc said. “Hopefully he can bring that same energy (Saturday).”