All systems go this time as Iowa State heads into March Madness with its hard-nosed defensive team

Updated Mar. 19, 2024 12:10 p.m. ET

Iowa State will make the short trip to Nebraska for the first and second rounds of the NCAA Tournament in a lot better frame of mind than the Cyclones team that traveled to North Carolina a year ago.

This team blew out Houston in the Big 12 Tournament championship game over the weekend and earned a No. 2 NCAA seed, matching the highest in program history. On Monday the Cyclones landed No. 4 in the AP Top 25, their best late-season ranking ever.

All systems are go, unlike last year when they went in as a No. 6 seed and off losses in nine of their previous 13 games. They failed to make a field goal the first 10 minutes against Pittsburgh, shot 23% for the game and lost 59-41.

“It was definitely a learning lesson for us,” said Tre King, one of three returning starters from that team.


Don't expect the 2024 Cyclones (27-7) to lay an egg again when they play 15th-seeded Summit League champion South Dakota State (22-12) in an East Region opener Thursday night in Omaha.

“Our guys know what’s at stake,” third-year coach T.J. Otzelberger said. “They know when you get to this time of the year and you’re fortunate enough to be playing meaningful basketball, how lucky we all are, and we’re going to make the most of the opportunity.”

It's what the Cyclones have been doing all season. They've won two of three against Big 12 bully Houston and lost back-to-back games just once after being picked seventh in the 14-team league in the preseason coaches' poll.

They developed into a vintage Otzelberger squad, built on a workmanlike offense and a smothering defense that, according to KenPom, is the nation's most efficient.

Four players average between 10.5 and 13.8 points, and eight different players have led the team in scoring. The Cyclones are middle-of-the-pack in the Big 12 in scoring as well as overall and 3-point field goal shooting percentage; they are near the bottom in free-throw shooting and rebounding.

Tamin Lipsey and UNLV transfer Keshon Gilbert lead a defense that forces 17.5 turnovers per game, averages 10.4 steals and is allowing opponents to shoot just 40%. ISU's defensive average of 61.3 points per game is fourth in the nation.

The emphasis on defense offsets the offensive shortcomings. Some 27% of the Cyclones' points are generated off turnovers.

In what shapes up to be a wide-open tournament, Baylor coach Scott Drew said, Iowa State “easily could win a national championship” if only because of its elite defense. Drew's Bears committed 13 turnovers and shot 39% in a 76-62 Big 12 semifinal loss to the Cyclones.

Otzelberger can't help but like the way his team is playing coming out of last weekend.

“You look at our team this year and the way we’ve been playing lately, it’s been a group that’s been very balanced across the board,” he said. “A strength of our team is that a lot of guys can step up on a given night, and our guys take tremendous pride in making the right play.”

The matchup against South Dakota State wouldn't be Otzelberger's first choice. He coached the Jackrabbits from 2016-19, going 70-33 with two NCAA appearances. Many of the support staff members he hired are still there.

The SDSU campus is about a four-hour drive from Omaha, and Jackrabbits fans like to follow their team. Same goes for Iowa State fans, who took over the T-Mobile Center in Kansas City last weekend. Omaha is 2 1/2 hours from Ames.

“It’s exciting, just knowing how close it is to Ames and knowing how our fans travel,” King said. “We know it’s going to be a fun environment and fun game. We’re chomping at the bit to get ready and get going.”


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