TULSA, Okla. — The Iowa State men’s basketball team had a rough three-week stretch that has been well documented.
The Cyclones turned it around and won the Big 12 tournament last weekend in Kansas City, Mo., and much of the talk was how the team came back together to win Iowa State’s fourth Big 12 tournament title in six years.
But what led to the Cyclones coming back together? Off the court, a players-only meeting undoubtedly helped.
On the court, they recommitted themselves to the defensive end of the court, and that, more than anything, is what led Iowa State to the Big 12 tournament championship and its newfound chemistry.
It has led Iowa State to a first-round NCAA Tournament matchup as a No. 6-seed against No. 11 seed-Ohio State at BOK Center at 8:50 p.m. Friday.
The defensive end is unique because it forces teammates to communicate. Offensively, the point guard can hold up a hand signal and his teammates know what to do without saying a word to each other.
But on defense, players have to call out screens, communicate during switches and quickly communicate who they’re guarding if the opposing team gets out in transition.
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The refocus on the defensive end has allowed Iowa State to play more as a true team thanks to the interactions it entails.
“Defense forces communication, that’s what helps us play,” freshman Tyrese Haliburton said. “You have to be locked in at all times.”
Fellow freshman Talen Horton-Tucker said Iowa State hasn’t even worked on offense in recent weeks. The sole focus has been on defense and communication on the defensive end.
“We were just trying to outscore everybody and we weren’t really worried about defense,” Horton-Tucker said. “But we had to change the narrative.
“When guys tuned into defense and to one another, it changed the whole season.”
The Cyclones were tuned into one another during the early part of the season, but once the losing streak hit, some players tried to dig the team out of the hole by themselves by being selfish and playing hero ball.
“Everyone had the mindset of, ‘I’ll do it, let me get us back into it,’” Haliburton said. “We needed to get back to where we were at the start of the year, which was, ‘Let’s do this together.’”
“Let’s do this together” starts and ends on the defensive end.
“You have to communicate on the defensive end,” sophomore guard Lindell Wigginton said. “When guys are connected and want to talk to each other, you play as hard as you can for one another.”
During the rough three-week stretch, Iowa State would come together as a team and talk about its problems, but the Cyclones never quite hit the nail on the head.
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“You’d hear guys talk about how we’re not getting things going offensively and the ball isn’t moving like it’s supposed to, which was a little bit of the problem, but we were still scoring 75 points per game, but you can’t give up 80, though,” Haliburton said. “We had to shift back to defense. If we get back to defense, we can get out in transition and the offense will take care of itself. We had to start from the ground up and defense is at the base and then everything else will work itself out.”
During Iowa State’s run to the Big 12 tournament title, the Cyclones didn’t give up more than 66 points in either of their three games.
“The defensive end is tough, it’s grimy, you have to be gritty to win down there,” junior forward Michael Jacobson said. “Getting the focus back to that made guys realize it’s kind of fun to win down there. We held Baylor to 66 points, we were in a battle with Kansas State and had to stay locked in on defense against them and obviously Kansas is very good offensively.
“The defensive end definitely brings you together.”
Marial Shayok, a senior, transferred from Virginia, a program that is known for its defense.
“Once we take pride in our defense, we help each other and give each other energy to get easy looks on offense,” Shayok said. “Defense keeps us in the game. Then, we have so much talent that one of us is going to get hot eventually on the offensive end. We just have to keep locking down defensively.”
Coach Steve Prohm just wants to see one thing on Friday against the Buckeyes: the same Iowa State team he saw during the Big 12 tournament.
“Offensively, we always have to play with pace and we always have to share the ball and keep the floor spaced,” Prohm said. “But the core of success is defensively.
“In Kansas City we had an identity. We had an identity on offense and defense. We have to have an identity here if we’re going to beat Ohio State tomorrow.”
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