Who’s the Big 12 bully now? It’s Iowa State and its unflappable coach

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — As Iowa State’s players backpedaled on defense, coach T.J. Otzelberger — arms crossed, per usual — shouted, “Get a stop!” His team was up by 24 points with eight and a half minutes left.

Otzelberger’s pulse in Saturday’s Big 12 tournament final against the nation’s No. 1 team seemed as steady as his Cyclones. No nerves. No panic. Just relentless execution on the way to giving legendary coach Kelvin Sampson his worst loss in 10 seasons at Houston, 69-41.

For most of the season, Houston’s defense has been the bogeyman. Big men would catch the ball around the rim against the Cougars, just assume someone was coming to block their shot and miss bunnies. Perimeter players would have space and give a half-second of hesitation to allow Houston to get back in the play. It’s why the Cougars have had the best defensive metrics all season.

Until now.

The Cyclones enter the NCAA Tournament with the best defense in the country, a healthy roster and looking like the Big 12 team most equipped to go on a run. Maybe they’ll even sneak onto the No. 1 line.

It will not matter where you send the Cyclones or what the challenge will be. Otzelberger’s players will be in line, following orders precisely with no egos and no agendas.

Over three days in Kansas City, the Cyclones had three different leading scorers — led by bigs Robert Jones (18) and Tre King (16) in the quarterfinals against Kansas State, then guard Keshon Gilbert (20) in the semis against Baylor and freshman Milan Momcilovic (18) in the finals.

“We’ve had great offensive balance, and it’s not necessarily because it’s by design,” Otzelberger said. “It’s just our guys really don’t care what the right play is. They just want to make it.”

“There’s a lot of people on this team that they would prefer to even get an assist as opposed to getting a bucket,” said Jones, who had just two points and didn’t seem to mind one bit.

Playing against Houston’s suffocating pressure and ball-screen traps for the third time this season, the Iowa State coaches leaned into that unselfishness. They told their guards not to hold onto the ball too long, because that’s when the Cougars swallow you up. They needed to get it out quickly.

“We learned especially after the second game, when the ball stops moving for us, they’re able to get in and really pressure us and dictate what we’re doing,” said ISU assistant Nate Schmidt, who serves as one of the team’s offensive coordinators. “I think part of it for us is our defense. We pressure and dictate so much that we’ve been seeing it since June.”

A month ago in the loss at Houston, the Cyclones had 16 turnovers. This time around, Houston dictated nothing.

The Cyclones had only nine turnovers. The ball had eyes, always finding the open man.

Houston is usually flawless in knowing who is supposed to take the roller and who is zoning up away from the ball. It’s why the Cougars usually recover so quickly. But Iowa State’s off-ball screening and movement left the Cougars pointing fingers at one another and led to some easy buckets, where there was someone at the rim unmarked.

And by not having live-ball turnovers, the Cyclones kept Houston out of transition and forced it to go against their defense.

With no time to really prep, Iowa State’s game plan was simple: keep the Cougars out of the paint, especially All-America guard Jamal Shead. Shead went 3-of-17 from the field, struggling to get into the teeth of the defense. A lot of his shots came late in the shot clock or were contested runners that felt forced.

“I didn’t think Jamal’s looks were that good because they were on the first side,” Sampson said. “You can’t play offensively like that. It’s why we’re good against a lot of teams. You have to play to the third side against good defensive teams and for whatever reason, we just didn’t have the patience to do that today.”

The Cyclones never relented, guarding with the same intensity and focus possession after possession after possession.

“We’re never gonna take the gas pedal off the gas,” sophomore point guard Tamin Lipsey said.

It showed in Houston’s numbers. The Cougars had just four open catch-and-shoot jumpers, and three of those came off offensive rebounds. They went 15-of-56 from the field, finishing with their lowest efficiency in any game Sampson has coached at Houston.

It’s remarkable where this program is just three seasons after going winless in the Big 12. Otzelberger, formerly an assistant at Iowa State under Greg McDermott and Fred Hoiberg, took over his dream job and recreated his identity as a coach. He’d been known for his offense at South Dakota State. After two mostly mediocre years at UNLV, he came home to Iowa State, and immediately made sure defense was his calling card.

The Cyclones had top-10 defenses his first two years, but they needed to catch up offensively this season to climb out of the middle of the Big 12. Iowa State targeted players who could dribble, pass and shoot in recruiting, getting precisely that in transfers Gilbert and Curtis Jones, plus Momcilovic, a freshman.

And in just his third season, Otzelberger has his first Big 12 championship against a team that was supposed to be like looking in the mirror. Otzelberger should be viewed as one of the best young coaches in the sport, based on where Iowa State was and where it looks to be going. And this night was the crowning achievement of his career.

Of course, you’d hardly know it by watching him afterward. Even when his team posed on the stage postgame, his toothy smile looked forced.

Where he’s comfortable is on that sideline, arms folded, watching his guys play for one another. Nothing flashy. Just a calculated beatdown.

(Photo: Jay Biggerstaff / Getty Images)

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