PORTLAND, Ore. – Inside a room about as cozy as a holding cell, in air so ripe it was like breathing through a mitten dipped in hot bath water, the Iowa State Cyclones danced. Or, more accurately, some of them moved large appendages in ways that vaguely resembled dancing. Others jumped up and down in a circle and shouted and laughed. Jaren Holmes, a senior transfer, bounced into the middle and channeled a TikTok routine by Lil Uzi Vert, before ceding the floor to a team manager. Another staffer closed the door to the scene, finally, at 4:48 p.m, in what was mostly a ceremonial gesture.
The celebration continued. Quite audibly. Very aggressively. Iowa State had not yet made all the noise it intended to make. “Pretty cool,” T.J. Otzelberger said at the foot of a Veterans Memorial Coliseum stairwell, a few minutes after his team doused him with water and bedlam. The head coach was one of the few able to traffic in understatement, given what had occurred Friday: Iowa State’s third-ever victory over a No. 1-ranked team, by way of putting North Carolina through the rock crusher to win 70-65 in the PK Invitational semifinals. A moment in time. Given how bad things were in Ames not long ago, a picture to stick on the mantle and stare at fondly.
But it all felt very much like a thing that happened on the way to something else, too. If we’re looking for the meaning blowing out of that locker room Friday afternoon, it’s something like a moratorium on questions about the shape of Iowa State men’s basketball. They don’t need to be asked. This won’t always be the case, and it’s not a promise of anything over the next four months, but we don’t need to wonder if these guys are on to something.
Otzelberger’s Iowa State didn’t define itself Friday, because it already did all of that work and that’s what made Friday possible. It’s a group of trained pugilists at its core, and it counterpunched North Carolina into submission, and it’s been doing some version of that for 40 games now. It didn’t confirm the plan would work, because that more or less happened last season, when the Cyclones made the trip from a dystopian two-win-season wasteland to the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament. It didn’t validate Otzelberger as a long-term program builder following some pretty notable attrition in the offseason, because two five-star prospects have signed on to play in Ames starting next year. Which guarantees nothing, yes. But you’re not a ground-floor investor if you’re buying into Iowa State today.
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— Iowa State Men’s Basketball (@CycloneMBB) November 26, 2022
So Friday was … nice. Nice to beat the No. 1 team, which the Cyclones had a 31 percent chance of doing, according to KenPom.com’s metrics. Nice that Holmes could solidify himself as a power-conference go-to threat after a productive run at St. Bonaventure, getting big bucket after big bucket to launch the late comeback from eight points down. Nice that Caleb Grill detonated for 31 points after all but losing his ability to shoot in the first four games, so much so he could laugh at the idea of attending a camp at Division II Emporia State years ago and hearing those coaches tell him he couldn’t play at that level. Nice that Grill could share a postgame interview dais with Otzelberger, the first Division I coach to offer him a scholarship. Nice, in its own way, that the head coach got a little choked up thinking about the kid who committed to play for him at South Dakota State, eventually followed him to UNLV and then joined him back in Ames.
And that’s where Iowa State is: Beating No. 1 is nice. There’s more after the exclamation point, though. “The wins are awesome,” Otzelberger said. “We want to win them all. But more than anything I want to build a program for the long haul that our fan base can be proud of, that our community can be proud of. For me, this isn’t a year-to-year thing. This isn’t a swing of a high and low in one game. This is for life. And it’s pretty awesome.”
Narrowing the lens, Friday was a function of Iowa State leading the nation in self-awareness. At a macro level, they’re expert identity-establishers in Ames. Tectonic personnel shifts don’t matter when players agree to terms and the coaches ably hold them to the deal; that’s how one of three Power 6 programs to return fewer than 25 points per game from its 2021-22 roster can be in a good enough place, in late November, to do what it did against North Carolina.
Holmes, for example, scored 1,020 points in three seasons at St. Bonaventure. Averaged double figures each year. Made an All-Atlantic 10 team. Pretty solid record. Indicative of pretty solid habits. And not long after he arrived at his new school, he slid into 6 a.m. offseason workouts with assistant coach JR Blount, a slot that had been occupied the previous summer by Izaiah Brockington, last year’s most important transfer import.
No fuss. No hesitation. That’s how it’s done. So Holmes did it. “I’ve always been kind of that, but it’s more ramped up here,” he said outside the locker room Friday. “I tried to build a habit, a bit of rhythm. And that’s my habit: Waking up super-early, stretching, getting the extra work in, and trusting the plan they had for me when I entered the portal.”
What you get is what you see. It translated to the game plan Friday, in that there was essentially no game plan.
On a one-day prep for North Carolina, Iowa State concluded being Iowa State was the way to go. A beauty contest meant a loss. A cage match meant a chance. Otzelberger alluded to fouls piling up in the first half as a bit of “adversity,” but in the flow of the game the Cyclones coaches considered it proof that finesse wouldn’t win the day. Schematically, the idea was to keep the very potent Tar Heels attack out of the paint … which is a concept Iowa State drills every day in practice. It didn’t always work, but it at least it turned out to be a draw; North Carolina had 28 paint points to Iowa State’s 26. If there was any adjustment of note, it came on the offensive end, after some early failures to get traction attacking the lane. Otzelberger and his staff turned to more of their motion sets to increase ball movement and spread North Carolina out, and while the Cyclones had to work through a second-half stretch of scoring only four points across eight minutes, the long game more or less worked out: A 1.152 points per possession rate after halftime, and most notably making seven of their last nine field goal attempts to turn an eight-point deficit into a self-contained court storm in the end.
A million little things go into an afternoon like this, in the end. Grill’s offseason mechanical tweaks to keep his feet spread and get a better arc on his shot finally took hold, after he’d made just four 3s in his first four games. “I just quit thinking about it,” he said Friday. Holmes found his openings down the stretch by running the same pick-and-roll gambit with Cyclones center Osun Osunniyi that they’d run together at St. Bonaventure. “Toward the end of the game, they were icing (screens), so I told him to flip the screen,” Holmes said. “That’s something we’ve worked on many times. We have that feel for each other.”
Generally, though, Iowa State closed out No. 1 because it knows itself better than most. And it imposed that on a team that doesn’t seem to remember who it is. “It doesn’t surprise me,” Otzelberger said. “I see them every day. I know what they’re capable of and will just continue to challenge them to be at their best every day.”
“Everybody worked together,” Grill said. “It’s just what we do.”
It turned out to be a very nice day indeed in the Pacific Northwest, never mind the sleety precipitation coating the streets. The Cyclones danced. They laughed. They received FaceTime congratulations from former star guard Tyrese Haliburton, who was so motivated to join the fun that he borrowed his mother’s iPhone during warmups for his game with the Indiana Pacers to place the call.
Iowa State plays UConn for the PK Invitational tournament championship on Sunday. Maybe it’s another moment. Maybe not. It matters, and it doesn’t. There’s more that comes after it.
(Top photo of Iowa State’s Jaren Holmes: Craig Mitchelldyer / AP)