AMES — T.J. Otzelberger pondered the question for just a moment. But after a slight delay, he had his answer when asked about what was the biggest piece in the Iowa State program that needed fixing.
“I’d say program pride. Caring about being a Cyclone, more than a point guard, a center, a position, a basketball attribute," Otzelberger said at media day on Oct. 13. "It’s pride about how we do everything in this program.”
Otzelberger's return to Ames comes with two distinct realities in mind: 1) Iowa State is in the middle of one of the worst skids in program history and is searching for answers, 2) It's time to get back to the winning foundation that made Otzelbrger and the teams he coached on previously household names for Cyclone fans far and wide.
But how does Otzelberger, his staff and a mostly new cast of characters get there? There's not a baseline to go off of how to win at a high level with the pieces assembled in Ames. After all, only three return from last season and only one has been in the program for more than three years.
As Iowa State athletic director Jamie Pollard and Otzelberger have repeated in the months after the coaching change, wins and losses won't be the main or even relevant barometer for evaluating the program's direction in 2021.
So if it's not going to be record-watching that will signify where progress is being made in a program with a combined record of 10-17 in league play over the last three seasons, where will it be?
“This place means everything to my family and I, we’re not going to bring guys here and we’re not going to recruit guys that don’t value it to that same level," Otzelberger said.
"It's important to me how our guys shake hands. It’s important where they sit in class. It’s important how they conduct themselves. It’s important that they know the gratitude and humility is there to be a Cyclone.”
Program pride may seem like a daunting task after a two-win campaign in 2020, but it's not one for Otzelberger. Eight months into the job, the new head coach of the Cyclones isn't worried about turning things around in a month or even a season. It's about stacking days.
Monday to Tuesday. Tuesday to Wednesday. Nothing fancy. The Cyclones know they aren't in a position to be cute with their approach. It's going to take buy-in at all levels. Things need to be fixed and Otzelberger and his players feel confident about the process they're undertaking.
George Conditt is the only member of the 2021-22 roster with more than three years of experience in the Cyclone program and he's not willing to let his senior season go by without maximum effort being given from those in the program. The big man from Chicago cares too much about the program to let the status quo become a losing one.
It's why he loves Otzelberger's culture shock.
“He [Otzelberger] understands what it’s been like and understands what it was. He was here when Midnight Madness was here sold out," Conditt said. "Having the year that we had last year and trying to bounce back from that and let everyone know, ‘We’re still here.’”
“Last year was last year. But now, what are we going to do about it this year? That’s been TJ’s mentality and I love it.”
It's about changing daily habits, how players approach their work on and off the court. No one is asking for All Big-12 performances every night and a top-five seed in the league.
That won't happen until a culture of hard work and grit becomes natural.
How you do anything is how you do everything
Gabe Kalscheur attacks his days the same.
The transfer from Minnesota comes to Ames in search of finding his freshman-year shooting prowess while he was a Golden Gopher, along with a fresh start. But he's also found a coach he can get behind and an atmosphere that he wants to embrace.
It all comes back to a phrase Otzelberger and his players had on repeat like a playlist with one song in shuffle when talking to them at media day.
"How you do anything is how you do everything," Otzelberger said.
Kalscheur loves the mentality. Coming to practice and knowing it's going to be a fight, not a gentle time to get some reps in and workout pushes him. Practices include lots of five-on-five play, with every drill having an element of competitiveness blended in. Rebounding. Making the extra pass. Creating turnovers.
Nothing is easy. But that's by design. Iowa State is in a position where it will have to fight and claw its way to the top of the Big 12.
And in his limited time in Ames, Kalscheur is bought in to see it through.
“I’ve just been attacking everyday with a championship and winning mentality," Kalscheur said at media day. “Everything we do is with a championship mindset.”
Kalscheur is expected to be a major contributor in 2021, with 88 starts in the Big 10 under his belt and an aggressiveness on the defensive end his coaches have come to appreciate.
The Cyclones have taken this system of competing and a hunger to win at everything off the court as well. Iowa State eats a meal together every day and they also try to spend as many weekends as they can together — whether its heading to Jack Trice Stadium to watch the football team or workout at the break of dawn at the Iowa State soccer fields.
Assistant coach Daniyal Robinson has watched for months as Otzelberger has carefully crafted his vision for success at Iowa State. And one thing is for certain, nothing is by accident.
Robinson said Iowa State has worked to be intentional in every aspect of practice, team meetings and one-on-one feedback with each other. There's no time for missteps.
It's been about getting collective effort from players and coaches, leading to much clearer role definitions for everyone involved.
So what's new under Otzelberger's approach in the eyes of Robinson — a coach who's been with the Cyclones for seven seasons?
“I think a high level of accountability, I think that’s been the biggest change and the willingness of our guys to adapt to the change and those guys want and want," Robinson said.
Kalscheur has been apart of teams where locker room environments have been stale and quiet, leading to individuals, not a team, going out on the court and trying to win. But he hasn't gotten that sense from this group of Cyclones. It's been easy to mesh and share a laugh.
And while he wasn't involved with the underperforming Iowa State teams of the last three to four seasons, Kalscheur and his teammates want to help each other get there.
He's bought in and it's in large part due to the trust he has in his new head coach and his unapologetic passion to turn things around.
“I just love the care and love that he [Otzelberger] has for his players," Kalscheur said. “If anybody that’s coming out of high school or going to college and want a coach to fend for them, to support them, to have the most trust and faith in them, I feel like TJ's great example of that.”
Tre Jackson has always been willing to do whatever is asked of him. And he's glad to see Otzelberger hasn't been afraid to ask more from him as the months have gone on.
The junior guard is the only member of the Cyclones' 2019-20 recruiting class to have stayed in Ames all three years, and has been highlighted by Otzelberger as a trusted leader on a team with more new than familiar.
But Jackson isn't just excited for the season ahead. He's excited for what could come out of this first season under Otzelberger and potentially long-term. He's not promising outlandish postseason finishes or a streak of upset wins in 2021.
Instead, he's ready for Iowa State faithful to see a new energy and intensity on the court that might have been missing for a number of seasons.
It's like Otzelberger said, Iowa State needs to restore pride in itself.
“Just knowing this school has a big history of winning and just making sure we represent Iowa State the way we need to represent Iowa State," Jackson said when asked the biggest points in this shift in culture and attitude.
Robinson has always seen Iowa State pride in full force with Conditt and Jackson, but with Conditt knowing the program the best and seeing what success looks like more than anyone on the roster it's up to him to be a voice to see that change happen.
“Bringing this new group together, having a guy that’s been here and seen success and been apart of success. He’s a legacy guy," Robinson said of Conditt. "He takes a great sense of pride in being a Cyclone and he shares that with his teammates.”
Conditt tasted the sweetness of a Big 12 Tournament championship his freshman year in Ames, and the prospect of a bright future of a talented young core in Ames for the foreseeable future. But times have changed.
But that moment of winning in Kansas City hasn't been lost on him. The six-foot-nine forward wants potentially his final ride as a Cyclone to be the start of a mission to get back to winning — back to playing with pride.
"I talk to them about it all the time, raise another banner, put another plaque on that wall," Conditt said.