Cyclones open Big 12 Tournament embracing the stage


Tyrese Hunter talks with Iowa State head coach T.J. Otzelberger during the Cyclones’ 73–53 win over Iowa on Dec. 9, 2021.

Matt Belinson

It’s win-or-go-home for Iowa State men’s basketball.

The postseason begins Thursday against Texas Tech in Kansas City, Mo., for the Big 12 Tournament, after two years of abnormal circumstances impacted the usual conference tournament buzz.

The 2019-20 tournament shut down once COVID-19 began to spread throughout the United States and the 2020-21 tournament played without fans — making the anticipated return to a sense of normalcy to the Big 12’s biggest stage a talking point.

The excitement isn’t being ignored by Iowa State’s freshman point guard Tyrese Hunter, who comes into the hype of Kansas City for the first time and was recently named Big 12 Freshman of the Year.

For him, Thursday, and the possible games after, are a chance to shine, rather than a chance to be afraid of what might happen.

The 18-year-old point guard is excited for the spotlight.

“Man, it’s crazy because I just talked to my best friend, and I was telling him, ‘Man, remember we talked about this?’ And now I’m playing in it,” Hunter said of playing in the Big 12 Tournament. “When you get to the opportunity, you can’t be scared because you dreamed of it as a kid, and you get to the moment you can’t freeze or get scared.”

Hunter’s ability to stay calm even in a new environment and with new pressures is not surprising to hear from Iowa State head coach T.J. Otzelberger. Since the summer, Hunter has been given the keys to the Cyclone offense from Otzelberger and has grown day by day into his current role.

Otzelberger said Wednesday that Hunter’s ability to face adversity head-on will serve him well in Kansas City and in future seasons. He’s got a short-term memory and can handle tough in-game situations like he might face Thursday against Texas Tech.

“When he’s played well, we’ve played well,” Otzelberger said of Hunter. “I don’t think that’s a big secret.”

The stakes are high, and expectations have been raised from what was once thought of as a preseason 10th place prediction from the league’s coaches. Iowa State finished the regular season 20-11 overall, 7-11 in league play and enters Kansas City as the No. 6 seed against the No. 3 seed Texas Tech.

In a must-win situation like Thursday, leaning on your best player can be a common crutch for teams. In the Cyclones’ case, that would be Izaiah Brockington.

The Big 12 Newcomer of the Year finished the regular season third in the Big 12 in scoring average (17.6 points per game) and scored in double-figures in 17 of the Cyclones’ 18 Big 12 games.

And while the Cyclones plan on letting Brockington go to work and take the lead on offense, Texas Tech will undoubtedly try and slow him down.

But for Otzelberger, the postseason has its fair share of players stepping up and giving crucial performances when they’re needed most. And despite Brockington’s scoring prowess, Otzelberger is hoping the team around him can come to play at a high level and contribute equally.

“We’re hopeful that other guys are stepping up and making shots around him because we realize, specifically with [Texas] Tech, they’re going to have a great focus on not letting him catch it and then when he does, have their whole defense loaded up and geared up for him,” Otzelberger said. “He has that ability to take over a game, to get in a rhythm.”

Texas Tech mirrors the Cyclones in many ways.

Both teams put defensive intensity at the forefront and work to pressure the ball on the perimeter and create turnovers. The Red Raiders contained Brockington to an average of 13 points in the two regular season meetings on 10-30 shooting.

After earning First Team All-Big 12 Honors, Brockington put his regular season into perspective as Thursday’s opening round matchup nears.

“I definitely exceeded my own expectations coming here,” Brockington said. “I just go out there and I play, and I do everything that I can to make us win.”

Iowa State (20-11, 7-11 Big 12) faces No. 14 Texas Tech (23-8, 12-6 Big 12) at 8:30 p.m. Thursday at the T-Mobile Center in Kansas City, Mo. The game will be broadcasted on ESPN2.

No team seeded No. 6 or lower has ever won the Big 12 Tournament.