T.J. Otzelberger hasn't been on the job long as the Iowa State men's basketball head coach, but when he was asked to identify what changes he feels the Cyclones need the most going forward by the media Thursday, he didn't hesitate to find an answer.
“We’re definitely in need of some more physicality on the front line," Otzelberger said to reporters Thursday.
He's got reason to make that a top priority.
The Cyclones' roster makeup from a season ago, and really over the last two seasons, was at the end of the pack in the front court at almost every meaningful statistic in the Big 12 and across the country.
Adding onto a losing season in 2020-21, the Cyclones ranked last in the Big 12 in defense, allowing 76.7 points a game to their opponents. Iowa State also allowed 46.3 percent from the field, also good enough for dead last in the conference. Iowa State ranked last in defensive and offensive rebounding and was in the bottom third in the Big 12 with 75 blocks.
As a team, Iowa State finished its 2-22 season at a -6.5 rebounding margin, the lowest the program has seen in the last decade.
This past season, Rasir Bolton, the Cyclones' 6-foot-3 point guard, averaged the same amount of rebounds as 6-foot-8 forward Solomon Young for the team lead at 4.8 boards per game.
But the production, or lack thereof, for the Cyclones' big men has been an issue for some time.
The Cyclones ranked last in the Big 12 in the 2019-20 season on defense, allowing their opponents to score 73 points a contest, shooting 45.2 percent clip from the field.
How does Otzelberger and his staff intend to fix this glaring weak spot on Iowa State's roster? It starts with his more experienced roster members.
George Conditt returns for the 2020-21 season with the most experience in the program, but the coaching staff wants to bring the Chicago, Illinois, native back on the path his freshman year showed on the court.
“[George] was on a heck of a trajectory here and [I’m] still learning more about how do we get him back on that path that he was once on," Otzelberger said.
Conditt was hailed as an impactful defender with his length and dynamic rim protection in his first two seasons, working in tandem with some of the best point guards and running the floor.
Last season, Conditt's production took a dive.
The 6-foot-10 forward averaged 2.4 points per game, 3.6 rebounds and 22 total blocks last season. Conditt has been known for his defensive prowess more than his offensive game, but he made 26 shots on 64 attempts last season. In the 2019-20 season, Conditt made 86 field goals on 154 attempts.
His 22 blocks a season ago were less than what he put up his freshman season when he averaged five fewer minutes.
Iowa State assistant coach Daniyal Robinson has built a connection with Conditt over the years and said he's seen his work ethic improve as the season progressed.
For the Cyclones to improve and become a threat in the post, Conditt will be expected to get back on his early path.
"For George, it's mental," Robinson said to the media Thursday. "You guys may not have seen it production-wise on the court the last month of the season, but George was one of the guys that was the most diligent and coming in and getting extra work and working on his game and he's carried through this spring."
The Cyclones hope to get Xavier Foster back from foot surgery, relegating the highly rated recruit from Oskaloosa, Iowa, to the bench last season. The 7-foot forward did show flashes in his brief time on the court, especially in his shooting.
Foster made three of the four 3's he attempted, and while it's a small sample size, it shows his high school 3-point shot could end up translating to the Big 12.
Otzelberger praised Foster as being offensively gifted, capable of stretching defenses with his shot while also being a massive shot blocker.
“You look at a guy like that and if you make the right investment from a time standpoint, mentoring, coaching and development, he can really be special," Otzelberger said.
What about players from the transfer portal?
Iowa State's first two transfer pickups have shined a bigger light on what the Cyclones want to fix immediately, with both transfers being forwards.
Aljaž Kunc, a 6-foot-8 transfer from Washington State, started 31 of his 32 games as a freshman for the Cougars. His latest season, Kunc started in 18 games and averaged 4.5 points and 3.2 rebounds.
Otzelberger said Kunc has a high motor and plays with quickness for someone his size. Like Foster, Kunc could bring a different fold to the front court with his ability to stretch defenses with his 3-point shooting. Kunc is a career 33.9 percent shooter from deep.
Thank you to the University of Denver for accepting me and for a great two years of growth and friendship. I’ve decided to further my career at Iowa State. Excited to start this new chapter of my journey. pic.twitter.com/K771nwGDRI— Robert Jones (@robbyj1415) April 1, 2021
Denver Pioneers forward Robert Jones will also be joining the new-look Cyclones for the season, with the 6-foot-10 forward having three seasons of eligibility left to make an impact in Ames.
Jones put up 9.1 points and 5.0 rebounds last season and brings size to a spot on the floor the Cyclones want to improve in order to get back into the conversation in the Big 12.