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‘Job’s not finished’: Iowa State battles Houston for top of Big 12

Robert+Jones+going+up+through+contact+during+the+Iowa+State+vs+Texas+Tech+game%2C+Hilton+Coliseum%2C+Feb.+17%2C+2024.
Matteo Bender
Robert Jones going up through contact during the Iowa State vs Texas Tech game, Hilton Coliseum, Feb. 17, 2024.

After another week of dominating conference opponents, the battle for the top of the Big 12 is at hand as Iowa State travels to Houston to take on its toughest challenge yet.

Both Houston and Iowa State are tied for the lead of the Big 12 at 9-3. After Monday, whoever comes out on top will sit alone at the top.

The Cyclones have done their job to prove themselves as a top-10 team in the nation, as the most recent seeding predictions for the NCAA Tournament had them as a No. 3 seed. However, a No. 1 seed waits around the corner. Despite that, the team is more than ready to take on the challenge and finish the season strong.

“Job’s not finished yet,” Robert Jones said. “There’s still a two seed. There’s still a one seed that we can still push for.”

The battle for the top seed starts with a quick turnaround. After taking down a tough Texas Tech team Saturday, the Cyclones have one day to prepare to take on Houston.

With the game slotted for Monday night, there is no room for rest. It will be a tough challenge to tackle a short turnaround, but the Cyclones knew what they were in for from the start and are prepared.

“I’d say it’s pretty tough, but at the end of the day, that’s what we signed up for,” Keshon Gilbert said. “That’s what we’ve been working for since June, so we gonna be ready for it.”

The biggest area that makes the turnaround tough is not the physical toll of playing two games in three days. It is the mental turnaround needed to put the recent win in the rear-view mirror and focus on the job at hand.

Iowa State head coach T.J. Otzelberger has preached the “one day at a time” mentality to his team and knows they are ready for the challenge.

“As much as anything, just getting everybody turned around quickly mentally,” Otzelberger said.

The driving force for a possible Cyclone upset will be the confidence gained from their first win over Houston. Although the win came at home with Hilton Magic in full force, it still gave the team a look ahead at what Houston brings to the table.

The Cougars are not just the top defensive team in the conference. They have guards who can make plays from anywhere on the court and sport an offensive prowess that has stifled nearly every team in the past.

Even with the looming threat of Houston’s balanced playstyle, having the reps already and knowing what it takes to beat the juggernaut of the Big 12 will be key to Iowa State’s success Monday.

“It ain’t nothing we ain’t seen before,” Gilbert said.

The real challenge comes from the atmosphere at Houston. Just like the Cyclones, the Cougars are also undefeated at home. Not only that, but they have blown out nearly every team that has entered Fertitta Center.

Lightning has to strike twice if the Cyclones want to pull out a win. They did the impossible and handed Houston its first loss of the season, and now they have to do that again to hand Houston its first loss at home.

“We gotta be even more locked in, even more together,” Jones said.

Despite the challenge at hand, the game plan remains the same. Take on each day as its own, and do not look too far ahead.

With one day to practice and get ready for Houston, Iowa State has to make sure it is locked in and doing the little things right. Otzelberger preaches the importance of daily habits, and with one day between games, those habits become even more important.

“We won’t treat it any differently. We’ll get right back to practice and do our preparation [Sunday] and be ready to go,” Otzelberger said.

It may be easy to look ahead to the Big 12 Tournament and the NCAA Tournament, especially with early seedings coming out, but Otzelberger is doing all he can to keep the team’s focus on what is in front of them.

With the Monday matchup being possibly the hardest test of the season, it is important to put all the attention on grabbing the No. 1 spot from the Cougars.

“It’s my job as the coach to make sure I keep everybody’s focus right where it needs to be, on the next thing, and not get anywhere past that,” Otzelberger said.

The top-10 matchup will take place at 8 p.m. Monday in Houston. The game will be aired live on ESPN.

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