Humbled but determined: How the Cyclones went from 2-22 to the Sweet 16


George Conditt and Caleb Grill celebrate during a timeout against the Hawkeyes on Dec. 9, 2021.

Andrew Harrington, Sports Editor

The final horn sounded at the Big 12 Tournament in Kansas City, Missouri, and the Cyclones were left humbled and heartbroken after the team finished the season with a 2-22 record back in 2021.

Change was inevitable after a season like this. What was not inevitable was one of the top single-season turnarounds in college basketball history.

Iowa State swapped coaches from Steve Prohm to T.J. Otzelberger, and from the get-go, Otzelberger preached the importance of restoring pride to Iowa State.

With only George Conditt IV, Carter Boothe, Eric Steyer, Jaden Walker and Tre Jackson returning, there was plenty of roster turnover, and with that came a change in mentality.

There was one motivational factor consistent among the players that remained in Ames: restoring fans’ pride.

“We wanted to see Iowa State go back to where it deserved to be,” Conditt said. “We wanted to be part of the reason that Iowa State was respected again throughout the Big 12 and throughout the nation.”

The Offseason

From the day workouts began, it was clear things were not going to be easy with Otzelberger in charge. The team would get up before the sun rose to do conditioning and other workouts and would go through some extremely difficult practices on top of that.

It was not an easy task for some of these players to buy into, with Conditt saying that it took every player buying into the team’s goals.

George Conditt sits on the floor of Hilton Coliseum after the Cyclones’ loss to Oklahoma State on March 2. (Jacob Rice/Iowa State Daily)

“It’s the very first time everyone does it, so you’re like, ‘Man, what is going on,’” Conditt said. “After the first practice, we understood that this is what we have to do. This is what we have to do to have that next level over another team.”

The Iowa State defense was one of the worst in the Big 12 during the 2020-21 season, which was one of the top priorities for Otzelberger amid the culture change. The players that stuck around were ready to adapt to this new culture, as conversations with Otzelberger allowed them to know what they were getting into.

“You knew it was coming,” Boothe said. “That’s the awesome thing.”

Early season success

It did not take long for Iowa State to showcase how far this new mindset could get them, as the team took an 83-74 win over Kennesaw State to open the season. 

Next up would be Oregon State, a team that had just made the Elite Eight. This would be the first major test for Iowa State, who would go on to win 60-50. While Oregon State would not go on to have a strong year, at the time, this win made some people start to believe the Cyclones could be special.

“Just coming out and facing a team that went to the Elite Eight the year before, even though Oregon State didn’t end up being very good,” Steyer said, “it was just nice to get that win over a Power Five team considering the year before we hadn’t done that.”

It took a trip to New York for some outsiders to understand the team’s true potential as the Cyclones picked up wins over top-25 teams Xavier and Memphis. These wins landed the team at 6-0 on the early season.

“No one expected us to have the season we had,” Conditt said, “but everyone in that locker room expected to win each and every one of those games. When we played Memphis, we expected to win. We worked our tails off to go win that game. Xavier, we expected to win. You know that tournament. People are like, ‘Oh, if we get one out of that tournament, it will be successful.’ No–we wanted to win the whole thing.”

Boothe agreed this tournament truly showed what the Cyclones knew they could do as the season went on. A message started to resonate with the players: This team was different.

“We can make some noise,” Boothe said, “That was a topic that was brought up a lot throughout the year.”

Conditt could tell from before the season even started that the year was going to be different, but it was the Big 12 opener against Baylor that allowed him to see truly how special the team was. 

“We played Baylor at home, and we fought and fought and fought. And no matter what, we still lost, right,” Conditt said. “I understood that the team could be special because no one hung their head going into a locker room. That was the first time I’ve ever seen a standing ovation for a team to take a loss.” 

It was this fight-till-the-finish mentality that got the Cyclones where they wanted to be last season, and Conditt said it took both veterans such as himself and first-year players such as Tyrese Hunter to make this mentality happen.

“I see people on Twitter nowadays make fun of Tyrese [Hunter] about the, ‘If you’re scared, don’t leave the locker room,’” Conditt said. “That was the whole mentality that everyone had; it wasn’t just Tyrese saying it on the spot.”

NCAA Tournament

Iowa State was on the bubble come Selection Sunday, so anxiety was high, and there was a chance this historic turnaround would be nullified by missing the tournament.

The Cyclones were by no means satisfied when their name was called to play in the NCAA Tournament as a No. 11 seed; however, they felt it was a massive milestone in a season that changed the trajectory of Iowa State basketball.

Conditt recalls himself, along with Izaiah Brockington and Gabe Kalscheur, going around to the players that had not been to the tournament before, telling them what to expect

Tyrese Hunter, Gabe Kalscheur, George Conditt IV, Tristan Enaruna, and Izaiah Brockington made up the starting lineup against Arkansas Pine-Bluff on Dec. 1, 2021, in Hilton Coliseum. (DJ Jacobi II/ Iowa State Daily)

when they arrived.

“The goal isn’t over,” Conditt said. “Our goal isn’t just to go into the tournament and then be thankful for that. We want to go into the tournament, [and] we want to win each and every game that we can.”

Iowa State matched up with No. 6 seed LSU in the first round in Chicago. The Cyclones were able to take care of business with a 59-54 win and would then go on to beat No. 3 seed Wisconsin 54-49.

Eventually, No. 10 seed Miami would be the ones to take care of business in the Sweet 16 with a 70-56 win over Iowa State, but T.J. Otzelberger’s team would finish the season with 22 wins, marking a 20-win improvement from a season ago.

A message to their previous selves

Looking back on the 2-22 season, fans can now see that it was just a stepping stone to what would go on to be a tremendous start to Otzelberger’s Cyclone career.

The players that returned had a feeling that there could be a turnaround, but they still felt some embarrassment from the season prior.

If the players could go back in time to say something to their prior selves, Conditt, Boothe and Steyer each had important messages that they would tell themselves.

“Believe that you were meant to be in the situation you were in,” Conditt said. “It’s very, very humbling. So, I was meant to be in that situation to understand what it really takes to be a good team in college basketball.”

Boothe said he learned to become more adaptive both on and off of the court.

“Pay attention to why things aren’t going well,” Boothe said. “Ask the why’s and learn from that.” “Failure is gonna happen in different shapes and forms in life,” Boothe said.

Keeping a strong mentality through the good times and the bad was the theme of the trio of answers. Steyer joined in by mentioning things can turn around a whole lot quicker than people imagine at the time.

“I think it would just be to hang in there,” Steyer said. “It’s not as bad as it seems; things can get turned around as long as we just stay positive and have a positive vision on where things are going.”