“Head of the Snake”: Tyrese Hunter’s path from freshman to “The General”

Tyrese Hunter impressed many in the Iowa State men’s basketball program with his poise and focus.

Matt Belinson

Tyrese Hunter turned to Izaiah Brockington with a visible smirk.

The Cyclones’ two leading scorers sat side by side with Gabe Kalscheur in the basement of the United Center — a place known for its superstars — just ahead of the Cyclones’ Sweet 16 date with Miami.

Hunter — who took home Big 12 Freshman of the Year, started the most games by a Cyclone freshman (35) and finished with the most steals and assists by a freshman in program history — broke the shell of an otherwise stoic demeanor he’s shown throughout the season when asked about his crafted persona.

It’s one name that followed him through social media posts, postgame pressers, and, eventually, his teammates during his impressive freshman season.

“The General”

“I feel like ‘the general’ is self-explanatory,” Hunter said of his self-given nickname. “Someone that — then it got deeper into just being a leader, making sure I demand stuff as a point guard you’ve got to demand the game, control the game.”

You read that right. Hunter gave himself the nickname.

The 18-year-old from Racine, Wisconsin, chose that on-court name for himself at a young age. When he arrived in Ames in the summer, he told his new teammates to call him that.

Everyone knew he would be the starting point guard in the first year of the T.J. Otzelberger era. His high school coach knew he would come in confident. The Iowa State coaches who recruited him were ready to trust him from the start.

As for the declaration of teammates calling him “The General”?

“I didn’t think it was going to stick,” Izaiah Brockington said. “When he first came on I was like, ‘who’s this kid coming in, giving himself a nickname?’ I’ve never heard of that.”

George Conditt has played with unapologetic players before, including young freshmen who came to Iowa State with expectations of instant impact.

But he never heard of someone coming to college and starting their career off with a proper nickname before the Cyclones even touched the court.

Conditt agreed with Brockington.

“We didn’t buy into that the whole summer,” Conditt said with a laugh. “His name was Tyrese.”

Smooth transition

Iowa State head coach T.J. Otzelberger expected bumps in the road while handing the Iowa State offense keys over to a freshman point guard.

In late October, before the 12–0 start, a top-10 ranking and a Sweet 16 run, Otzelberger told reporters on media day Oct. 13 that Hunter would be the team’s starter at the one and would have the trust from coaches and teammates.

But he admitted starting someone so new in high-major basketball would come with preconceived challenges.

“You understand as a coach when you have a freshman point guard, things are going to be new,” Otzelberger said. “There’s going to be changing defenses, there’s going to be situations in the game, there’s going to be presses, zones, traps. Everybody’s going to throw the kitchen sink at him to try and keep him off balance.”

And while the messages stayed true and defenses slowly realized what kind of problem Hunter would be, he adapted fast — faster than some would have thought.

Hunter scored double figures in five of his first 10 games as a Cyclone and averaged five assists.

The early signs of a strong freshman season emerged Nov. 24 at Madison Square Garden against Xavier when Hunter put up a then-career-best 19 points and five steals.

Aljaz Kunc needed time to adjust to his freshman experience at Washington State, with college-level weight lifting, academic schedules and being a basketball player bringing in unknowns to his life.

He didn’t see any sort of bumps in the road for Hunter.

“It doesn’t really bother him,” Kunc said of Hunter. “It doesn’t really affect him in any way. He came in from high school and just kept playing like he was in high school.”

Otzelberger watched as Hunter grew more and more comfortable being the leading man of Iowa State and noted his ability to stay cool despite never being here before.

There’s nothing better than having a point guard with a level-head and calm demeanor.

“He certainly matured as the season moved on, and did a great job of commanding our team,” Otzelberger said. “Proved that there’s no task too big for him even though he’s a freshman. Plays with a poise and composure well beyond his years.”

“It starts the moment he steps on the court,” Kunc said. “I feel like he believes he’s not a freshman, and then he plays like it as well. He’s the head of the snake honestly.”

“The General” arrives

After months of passing it off as a playful joke, Iowa State eventually bought into Hunter’s nickname. And with good reason.

Hunter started all 35 games this season and finished second on the team at 31.9 minutes a game.

He averaged 11 points, 4.9 assists (172 total), 3.5 rebounds, 2 steals (71 steals total) in his first season as a Cyclone and capped off his year in the top-five in steals by a Big 12 freshman in history.

“We can joke around, but he’s proved it game after game on the court,” Kunc said. “He leads this team; he generates offense.”

Hunter scored in double figures 20 times this season, including a career-high 23 points against LSU on 7–11 shooting from three in his first NCAA Tournament game.

Even previous Iowa State point guards Tyrese Haliburton (33 minutes a game) and Monte Morris (28 minutes a game) were lapped by Hunter’s freshman numbers.

Haliburton averaged 6.8 points and 3.6 assists and scored double figures in 10 games.

By comparison, Morris dished out 134 assists in his freshman season while averaging 6.8 points and 3.7 assists a game.

“And I was blessed enough these guys took it on and took it serious, like, ‘you’re the general, you’re the one that keeps everybody under control throughout the game,’” Hunter said. “It started as a joke, but now I feel like that’s something people see me as.”

Shot selection got better for Hunter as the season went on, along with his playmaking ability. Over his last 10 games of the season, Hunter averaged 6.2 assists to 3.1 turnovers.

Hunter improved his ability to control games and understand time and score, with Otzelberger praising Hunter’s 13-point, eight-assist game against Texas on Jan. 15 as his best to that point.

“That’s his best college game to this point,” Otzelberger said Jan. 15. “He controlled the entire game. He made the game go his way.”

Teammates noticed Hunter’s rise on big stages, and “The General” became a calling card rather than an inside joke.

Otzelberger started using it. Teammates turned it into a true hype-up on social media.

And before long, Hunter was giving out strong messages to the Cyclones before their improbable NCAA Tournament run.

Conditt was one of many who didn’t want to buy into Hunter’s request at first. But before Senior Day against Oklahoma State, Conditt could officially say Hunter had graduated from freshman to something more.

“He’s not a freshman anymore,” Conditt said March 1. “You can’t even call him a freshman. He’s playing the game way beyond that.”

And in his home state, outside the Iowa State locker room at the United Center, Conditt came full circle on who Tyrese Hunter is.

“He started showing up in games and became that leader and floor general, literally,” Conditt said. “You had to call him ‘general.’”