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Non-Conference Preview: Iowa State has a new coach and a rebuild

The Big 12 is a brutal league to have a down year in as a college hoops coach.

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NCAA Basketball: Iowa State at Baylor Raymond Carlin III-USA TODAY Sports

I don’t know what it is, but as much as you try to plan the end of the preseason, it sneaks up on you way quicker than you expect... despite the College Basketball season being the longest of all the major sports. After finishing a preview for the Kentucky Wildcats Thursday night, here I am writing another preview for the upcoming season.

This time it’s for the Iowa State Cyclones, a team who has seen a world of highs and a world of lows and not a ton in the middle. And they’re Missouri’s draw in the Big 12-SEC Challenge. The Big 12-SEC Challenge is a nice break from conference competition at the end of January and has been going on for nine seasons.

The rest of the Non-con (complete with links to the post):

Iowa State’s record in the Challenge is 3-5, and Missouri’s is 2-2. And both programs have had their own periods of success since Missouri departed the Big 12.

Where Missouri has been stuck in a period of mediocrity, Iowa State has either been really good or quite bad. For six seasons Steve Prohm steered the Cyclones to three NCAA Tournaments, two last place Big 12 finishes, and one second to last place finish. Their worst NCAA seed was 6th! But 3 of the last 4 seasons were those bottom finishes and the NCAA seed was the lowest... so perhaps the Iowa State brass saw a bit of a difficult trend which needed to be course corrected.

And then Prohm was fired.

So they fired Prohm, a respected tactician, and hired T.J. Oztelberger from UNLV. How’s that looking for this season?

NCAA Basketball: UNLV at San Diego State Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Head Coach | T.J. Otzelberger | 1st Season

I have nothing against T.J. Otzelberger, but what a weird move this was.

Steve Prohm is a good basketball coach, but winning in the Big 12 is really difficult. For one, there's Kansas who had won 16 of the last 19 Big 12 championships, and are projected to win this year. Then there’s Baylor, who won the National Title last year, and hasn’t finished outside of the top 35 in KenPom in the last 10 years. Bob Huggins is a Hall of Famer running the program at West Virginia. Chris Beard was revamping Texas Tech, and now he’s at Texas. Lon Kruger has been consistently good at Oklahoma... the Big 12 has been either the first or second best league per KenPom since Prohm was hired. So there was bound to be some variance.

But Oztelberger has some history at Iowa State, and specifically ties to when the program was at its best. He was an assistant coach under Wayne Morgan, and then Greg McDermott, but it was under Fred Hoiberg where he shined. So much so that he was hired at Washington for a few years, then he returned for Prohm’s first season when Iowa State landed a 4 seed in the NCAA tournament. He was then hired at South Dakota State, had a nice run following up Scott Nagy, and then took the job at UNLV.

And Oztelberger was okay at UNLV, a program that has changed a lot since the days of Jerry Tarkanian. In year one, they went 17-15, but went 12-6 in conference play. Year two the record was 12-15, and 8-10 in conference. They went from 98 in KenPom to 176, and the recruiting was just okay.

But Jamie Pollard felt comfortable enough with Otzelberger to hire him. So we’ll see how this goes.

Series History | Missouri leads 92-57

Missouri has played Iowa State in basketball more than anyone with the lone exception of Kansas State. The teams have played twice since Missouri left the Big 12, with Missouri blitzing the Cyclones in Michael Porter Jr’s Mizzou debut, and the Cyclones reciprocating the following year in Ames. But the 9 games prior to the MPJ debut went the way of the Tigers. As Mike Anderson had built the program and Frank Haith sustained it, Iowa State had fallen on hard times under Morgan and McDermott.

Most Missouri fans will remember the era of Johnny Orr. Orr was the head coach at Iowa through some formative years when Stormin’ Norman Stewart was roaming the sidelines in Columbia. Iowa State had played in the 1944 NCAA tournament, and exactly ZERO since that appearance until Orr took over the program in 1980. It took Orr five seasons to get there, but he made six tournaments in the next 10 seasons. Since Orr made his first tournament, Iowa State has been to 19 tournaments, and they’ve missed the tourney 18 times.

Going from a 40 year hiatus to making it more than half the time is quite the turnaround. But Norm was still 8-16 against Johnny Orr. Tim Floyd and Larry Eustachy had much more success against the Tigers... with Eustachy getting into a little trouble in Columbia. There’s no telephone involved, but I do miss the games at Hilton.

NCAA Basketball: Iowa State at Baylor Raymond Carlin III-USA TODAY Sports

What about the team now?

Iowa State is not projected to be very good. Last season they were 2-22 with wins over Arkansas Pine-Bluff and Jackson State, and they finished 171st in KenPom. Steve Prohm was fired after going 0-18 in conference play, which is something that doesn’t happen very often. Vanderbilt fired Bryce Drew after going winless in the SEC in 2019, Boston College went winless in the ACC in 2016 in Jim Christian’s second season, Oregon State did it in the Pac-10 in 2008 and it got Jay John fired, and Texas A&M went winless in the Big 12 in 2005 which caused Melvin Watkins to be fired. So the rule here is... don’t go winless at the high major level unless you’re really early in your tenure.

Losing players off of a bad team isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but Iowa State lost everybody. Aside from Tre Jackson, Jaden Walker, and George Conditt, who combined to average 10.7 points per game, and only Jackson averaged more than 20 minutes per game. So with a bad roster leaking players en masse, Otzelberger turned to the transfer portal. He added six transfers— four from power conference schools, here’s a quick intro:

  • Izaiah Brockington, from Penn State, a 6-4 guard who averaged 12.4 points per game in nearly 30 minutes per game.
  • Tristan Enaruna, from Kansas, a 6-8 combo forward who averaged fewer than 10 minutes per game and just a few points also.
  • Robert Jones, from Denver, a 6-10 post who played 21 minutes per game and averaged 9 points per game in the Summit League.
  • Gabe Kalscheur, from Minnesota, a 6-4 wing who chipped in 9.2 points per game in around 30 minutes.
  • Caleb Grill, from UNLV (weirdly enough, he played his freshman season at Iowa State), a 6-3 wing, who played 30+ minutes for the Rebels and scored 9.1 points per game.
  • Aljaz Kunc, from Washington State, a 6-8 stretch post who played around 19.9 minutes and scored around 6.3 points.

Plus one freshman signee, point guard Tyrese Hunter from Wisconsin. Hunter was a 4-star top 40 prospect who signed with Prohm in the fall and stuck with Iowa State despite the coaching change.

Seven newcomers mixed with three returners, and a couple walk ons and you have the 12 man roster for the Cyclones. This looks like a slightly more competitive roster than a year ago. The preseason KenPom rating is 113, and they’re projected to be 13-17 with a 4-14 Big 12 record.

But 4 wins is better than zero!