Even with Exceeded Expectations, Iowa State Eyes Disappointment

AMES – Iowa State has already had a successful season.

The Cyclones men’s basketball team could lose every game until the end and, facing the challenge of rebuilding after a 2-22 season and a coaching change, they have already finished a season on the right side of the register of expectations.

A successful season, however, is different from one that has made the most of its opportunities.

This is the lesson the State of Iowa is about to learn from its 75-69 overtime loss to Kansas State on Saturday in which the Cyclones scored the first 13 points of the game, trailed by 15 in the second half and held a 10-point advantage with less than 10 minutes remaining.

It was a win the Cyclones almost certainly needed if they were to accomplish what would have seemed impossible 3 months ago – make the NCAA Tournament. At 16-9 overall and 3-9 in the Big 12 with six games and the conference tournament still to come, there is still some way to go for the Cyclones until draft Sunday, but they are now extremely hindered.

“Our backs couldn’t be more against the wall,” Iowa State coach TJ Otzelberger said. “We know how important this game would have been.”

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It is a miracle of notable proportions that the state of Iowa is even in this position.

Otzelberger in his first season at Iowa State inherited a program at or near his historic nadir. The Cyclones hadn’t won a game on the road in almost 3 years. They had lost 23 straight games in conference competition. They finished last season with a school-record 18-game losing streak.

Building a roster, in a pandemic, under those conditions left Otzelberger and Co. signing as many projects as players. No star would come in such circumstances. If Iowa State was going to change its trajectory in Year 1 under Otzelberger, it would have to be done with a group of guys with flawed games and something to prove.

The task became even more difficult when the program fired three scholarship players after the start of the school year but before the start of the season.

But somehow, through a combination of grit and serendipity, Iowa State won its first 12 games of the season and ended up in eighth place in the nation.

The truth is, the Cyclones have never been one of the top 10 teams in the country. They had one of the top 10 resumes in the country, yes, but the confluence of a limitless physical style and catching the right teams at the right time created something of a bubble.

Iowa State stocks had risen, but it just couldn’t last.

“I know the expectations have gotten higher because we’ve had success,” Otzelberger said, “but our guys have to embrace our way of doing things.”

However, knowing that Iowa State couldn’t maintain a top-10 streak thanks to a ruthless Big 12 schedule is not the same as acknowledging the luck that awaits them.

All the hard work and great performances over two months opened the doors to the possibility, including that a Big 12 average record would allow for the most tantalizing possibility: an NCAA Tournament berth.

Excessive performance made modest success all it took to achieve a huge goal, especially after a strong 3-5 start in Big 12 play.

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Squeeze in the necessary wins, and the NCAA Tournament, where the impossible seems achievable and immortality awaits with every dribble, seemed like a lock.

With Saturday’s home loss to a Kansas State team in the same position, the math got a whole lot harder for the Cyclones.

Iowa State would probably feel safe with seven Big 12 wins, but now it has just six chances left to register those four wins. Additionally, they will need to have at least one on the road and one of those six matches will be against defending national champion Baylor.

A win over Kansas State would have made things much easier. The loss not only makes the math messy, but considering how Iowa State lost, it also defies belief in the future.

Not only did Iowa State lead — and lead big — for most of the game, the offensively challenged Cyclones had an unusual 19 points for Jaz Kunc and a monster 27 from Izaiah Brockington. Posting days like this and still losing, well, that’s a major missed opportunity.

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“They were more physical after halftime,” Kunc said. “I don’t want to say we relaxed, but we certainly weren’t as aggressive as in the first half.”

Being the most physical and aggressive team is Iowa State’s winning identity. To give up both in such an important match is a monumental mistake, a red flag and a missed opportunity.

“They wanted to win more than we wanted to win,” Otzelberger said, “and that’s something that everyone on our program and on our team has to swallow and live with.”

When the curtains close on Iowa State’s 2021-22 men’s basketball campaign, the Cyclones can unquestionably claim victory.

If they can’t snatch a berth in the NCAA Tournament in the final weeks of the season, they’ll also know they haven’t maximized the odds in front of them.

They will be able to celebrate the season, but will have to live with the scenario.

Travis Hines covers Iowa State University sports for the Des Moines Register and Ames Tribune. Contact him at [email protected] Where (515) 284-8000. FFollow him at @TravisHines21.

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