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Iowa State NCAA Tournament notebook: Cyclones grateful for fast rebuild, face tough LSU defense
LSU grapples with head-coaching change
MILWAUKEE — As select Iowa State players sat at the stage in the loading-dock-turned-interview-room at Fiserv Forum Thursday, there was no shortage of gratitude.
Gabe Kalscheur was “definitely grateful.” Izaiah Brockington was “extremely grateful.” Tyrese Hunter? He’s “beyond grateful.”
There’s plenty of reason for that sentiment considering March 17 was a much better day for the Cyclones in 2022 than 2021.
March 17, 2021 was the day after Iowa State, having just gone 2-22, fired head coach Steve Prohm.
March 17, 2022 is the day before the Cyclones play in an NCAA Tournament first-round game under first-year head coach T.J. Otzelberger despite being picked to finish last in the Big 12 preseason poll.
“They take a lot of pride in what we've done to this point — to have the turnaround of 18 games and be playing in this tournament,” Otzelberger said of his players.
The No. 11-seed Cyclones are a four-point underdog against No. 6-seed LSU Friday, but they’re embracing it.
“We know tomorrow's game is going to be really tough, but our guys relish being the underdog,” Otzelberger said. “Our guys relish coming into an opportunity where we have that chip on our shoulder and we have something to prove.”
LSU’s defense adds obstacle
The Cyclones will be going up against one of the most efficient defenses in college basketball Friday.
KenPom ranks LSU fifth nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency. Otzelberger noted the Tigers “do a great job protecting the rim,” and the Tigers’ 25.3 percent turnover rate is the highest among NCAA Tournament teams.
“They do a lot of press,” Kalscheur said. “They try to speed us up in the press and turn us over in the backcourt, so we've just got to be strong and come to the ball a lot. And if we do that, we have a lot of opportunities on the back side for layups and 3s.”
LSU trying to steady ship
Friday will be LSU’s first game since firing head coach Will Wade last weekend.
“This week has been a little hectic, obviously, with the new changes in the staff,” LSU forward Tari Eason said. “But I feel like everybody's doing their part to step up, all the assistant coaches, even the players, our leaders.”
It’s clear Wade’s departure still is on LSU players’ minds.
“We miss him,” LSU forward Darius Days said Thursday. “I'm going to continue saying that we miss him. We wish him the best. We just wish he was here with us.”
Interim head coach Kevin Nickelberry has the responsibility of keeping the team together despite the obvious turmoil. Nickelberry said the first day of practice was “a little tough,” but the two days after that were “good.”
“We have both feet in the boat,” Nickelberry said. “I can't promise them it's going to be a cruise ship, smooth or a little rowboat in the middle of a swamp.”
It’s not a totally foreign situation for the Tigers. Wade was suspended for the SEC Tournament and NCAA Tournament in 2019, forcing LSU to turn to an acting head coach there as well.
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