AMES- Who could've seen this coming?
The season is only six games old, but Iowa State men's basketball is off to an impressive start.
T.J. Otzelberger, a 'motley crew' of transfers and a tenacious attitude on defense have brought the Cyclones back into the national picture as December approaches.
There were impressive stretches at times against their first four opponents. Defensive schemes that clicked, stellar individual performances and team unity led them to a 4-0 start as they headed to Brooklyn.
But the Cyclones came into town and took it to a ranked Xavier team, then beat down on a top-10 Memphis squad like Iowa State was the one that was ranked.
Now, they find themselves ranked at No. 19 after their 6-0 tear to start the season. But the shocking start and buzz created in Ames in the early days of the season fall on deaf ears to Otzelberger.
"I'm proud of our guys that we won games that we set out to win," Otzelberger said. "But my interest is in the daily habits, the progress every day and the team continuing to improve."
Continuing to improve is one way to put it.
After two games of failing to eclipse 70 points and one of those evenings containing a 1-20 showing from deep, Iowa State had scoring outputs of 82, 82 and 78 in its next three contests.
Those scoring outputs were aided by forcing turnovers and getting out in transition. The team totaled 39 points off turnovers in two games at the Barclays Center and had 36 fast-break points.
They also forced at least 17 turnovers in each game while committing no more than 15 themselves. It's been a focus of Otzelberger and his team, as they suffered bouts with turnover troubles early in the season.
Now they turn their attention towards the Lions of Arkansas Pine-Bluff, a team the Cyclones saw almost exactly a year ago. The two teams faced off in 2020, and the game accounted for one of Iowa State's two wins last season, an 80-63 victory in Ames in the season opener.
In total, the Lions and Cyclones have squared off five times. All five were in Ames, and Iowa State won all five. The first meeting was in 1997, and the most recent was the aforementioned season opener in 2020.
The Lions come in with a record of 1-7, as they picked up a win in their last game against Arkansas Baptist College. Their leading scorer is senior guard Shawn Williams, who averages 16.1 points per contest.
As for the Cyclones, their leading scorer continues to be Izaiah Brockington at 15.5 ppg, followed closely by Gabe Kalscheur at 14.3. Both Brockington and Kalscheur posted 30-point games in Brooklyn and were named to the NIT Tip-off All-Tournament team.
It was Kalscheur, however, who took home MVP from the tournament and was named Big 12 Newcomer and Player of the Week for his efforts.
Kalscheur, a transfer from Minnesota, had 30 points, eight assists and also contributed five steals in Iowa State's win over Memphis. His head coach had high praise for the performance and appreciates the tenacity Kalscheur brings on both ends of the court.
"That was one of the finer games, if not the best, of any player I've coached in terms of how he imposed his will and his spirit both offensively and defensively," Otzelberger said.
Despite the heroics from Kalscheur against Memphis, it was and has been a true team effort to get the Cyclones where they are. Whether it's Aljaz Kunc and Tristan Enaruna bringing more offensive firepower as of late or the post duo of George Conditt and Robert Jones providing stability at the center position.
Add in the dynamic play of freshman point guard Tyrese Hunter, who is averaging around 13 points and five assists per game, and you have all the makings of a team that, so far, has exceeded the minimal expectations set forth before them this season.