Iowa State dispatches Baylor with ruthless efficiency, makes Big 12 final

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — There’s a look that opposing players and coaches get when they face Iowa State.

Frustration. Exasperation. Helplessness. All of the above.

Baylor had it on Friday night in the semifinal of the Big 12 tournament. Wore it like a winter coat. At the final media timeout of the second half, the score well out of reach, Baylor’s leading scorer RayJ Dennis approached an official, seeking solace as much as an explanation. It was the same expression Bears coach Scott Drew had whenever his team would haplessly hurl a pass into the hands of a Cyclones defender, flipping his palms upward as hope evaporated from his body.

Baylor committed 13 turnovers on Friday, which is actually a respectable mark against this Iowa State crew. But it resulted in 16 points on the other end in a 76-62 victory for the Cyclones.

“They’re going to make everybody look bad offensively,” Drew said afterward. “We had too many live-ball turnovers that put them into transition.”

Defense wins championships, or at least it will in the Big 12 this season. Iowa State advanced to face top-seeded Houston in the title game on Saturday, the two teams boasting the most efficient defenses in the country according to KenPom: Houston first, Iowa State second. A fitting matchup for a bare-knuckle-brawl of a conference, and why the Cougars tend to elicit a similar irritation from their opponents.

Both teams have looked the part through two games apiece here in Kansas City. Houston defeated TCU by 15 and Texas Tech by 23. Iowa State beat Kansas State by 19, forcing 20 turnovers and holding the Wildcats to 38 percent shooting. One day later, it bottled up a Baylor offense that ranked fifth in KenPom’s offensive efficiency, limiting it to 39 percent from the field and 21 percent from 3-point range. The Cyclones committed just 12 turnovers across both games.

“Our guys did a really good job of staying connected defensively, making sure that we’re in our gaps,” said head coach T.J. Otzelberger. “These guys did a terrific job guarding the basketball, but it also takes guys off the ball to be in those gaps, and I felt like we did a really good job of having each other’s back.”

Iowa State operates with a militaristic clinicality. Play defense. Create turnovers. Take care of the ball. It’s a style embodied by Otzelberger, right down to his high-and-tight crew cut and form-fitting polos. The former high school coach and JUCO assistant presents as the type who wouldn’t dare begin his day without first making his bed, not a wrinkle or crease out of place.

He instills that same mentality in his team, not through bullying or browbeating but rather a culture of on-court discipline that yields results, at a program where he clearly understands what it takes to succeed. Otzelberger has won at least 19 games in all three of his seasons as the head coach in Ames, Iowa, and is about to reach the NCAA Tournament for his third straight year, each one featuring a top-10 defense.

“It really starts with the recruiting process and the guys we bring into this program, and just the standards that we have. We hold each other accountable,” said sophomore guard Tamin Lipsey. “Just the connectedness that we built since summer. And that’s how you win these late games. Once you get into March, it’s going to come down to who is more of a connected group.”

The defensive discipline is the constant. But the reason this season’s roster is the best of the bunch is a much-improved offense, aided by the development of players like Lipsey, Robert Jones and Tre King, and the additions of transfers Keshon Gilbert and Curtis Jones and freshman Milan Momcilovic. It’s made for a deeper and more balanced attack. Against Kansas State, King and Robert Jones combined for 34 points as the Cyclones scored 44 in the paint, compensating for a 1-of-14 night from beyond the arc. Against Baylor, Gilbert led the way with 20 points, seven boards and seven assists and the team buried 10 of 20 from deep.

“We don’t hang our hat on that one way or another,” said Otzelberger. “As long as we’re moving the ball, playing for each other, if that means there’s more baskets in the paint or at the foul line or from 3, we can win games in a lot of different ways.”

That depth and versatility is something a banged-up and undersized Houston doesn’t have at the moment, and could be a factor in the title game or even the NCAA Tournament. For Iowa State, one of only three teams to beat the Cougars this season, it could unlock a deep tournament run for a school that hasn’t made the Elite Eight since 2000 and has reached the Final Four just once, way back in 1944.

Don’t expect the Cyclones to be a trendy pick in the office pools next week, though. They’ve been solid and consistent all season, but rarely flashy. When the narrative of the Big 12 gaming the NET started making the rounds, Iowa State and its 326th nonconference strength of schedule was tabbed as one of the chief culprits. All the team has done in response is go 26-7, including nine Quadrant 1 wins and a 13-5 record in the Big 12, good enough for second place and a probable No. 2 seed in a league that expects to get nine bids on Selection Sunday. And there’s still a chance to win one more on Saturday.

Iowa State’s workmanlike efficiency extended to Friday’s postgame news conference, to the point that Otzelberger and company exhausted every question with time still to spare. So the head coach used the opportunity to play reporter, asking Gilbert how the leading scorer remains focused on always making the right play for his team, offensively and defensively, in every situation.

“Uh, that’s what it takes to win,” said Gilbert, looking caught off guard for the first time all evening. “Yeah, uh, I just want to win.”

Play defense. Create turnovers. Take care of the ball. It’s not flashy or splashy or sexy, but for Iowa State, it works.

No further questions.

(Photo of Tamin Lipsey: Jay Biggerstaff / Getty Images)

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