Powell: ‘Year Zero’ and obliterating the rebuilding process


Jacob Rice/Iowa State Daily

T.J. Otzelberger instructs his team from the sideline during the Cyclones’ 75-54 win over Oklahoma on Feb. 19, 2022

James Powell

Rebuilding doesn’t appear to be in T.J. Otzelberger’s vocabulary.

He and his transfer-laden squad made that abundantly clear when they went from picked last in the Big 12 to one of the 16 teams left in the NCAA tournament.

It has been discussed ad nauseam about Otzelberger shattering the glass ceiling set by the 2-22 season last year. It was a season to remember and offer credit where credit is due.

But how did he do it?

The current state of the transfer portal certainly helped him along.

Izaiah Brockington, Gabe Kalscheur and Aljaz Kunc were able to hop right on board the defensive express that Otzelberger was driving, and they rode that train to a longer tournament run than any of their seasons prior.

Prior connections led Caleb Grill back to a place he already knew, following Otzelberger from UNLV back to Ames and becoming a sharpshooter that literally sent Twitter ablaze when he would heat up. Add in a true veteran presence in every respect in George Conditt, and you’ve got yourself a recipe for success.

Oh, and a guy named Tyrese Hunter who self-proclaimed himself as “the general” and did everything to show he earned that nickname, picking up Big 12 Freshman of the Year Honors and breaking multiple freshman records at Iowa State along the way.

So it wasn’t a true first-year experience that many coaches have when they take over a struggling program.

Hence, the concept of “year zero.”

It would be irresponsible to sit here and say that this iteration of the Cyclones have set the precedent and Otzelberger will never be sitting on the couch come March ever again.

But what this season did do is “restore the pride”, as both Otzelberger and his players put it. It also showed that the philosophies and strategies that Otzelberger employed can work with buy-in from every member of the team.

Now, Brockington and Conditt have already said their goodbyes, Tre Jackson has entered the transfer portal and others may be soon to follow both paths.

Tyrese Hunter clearly gave indications that he’s ready to lead this team for at least another season, and pieces like Robert Jones and Jaden Walker may stick around and make impacts comparable to the ones they made this season.

Then comes the young guns. Eli King, Tamin Lipsey and Demarion Watson will all be valuable additions to the Cyclones next year, but to expect them to fill the shoes of Izaiah Brockington’s consistency on offense and Gabe Kalscheur’s incredible defense would be asking too much of them.

So we may see a step back for Otzelberger and what surely will be a younger squad next year. There’s a chance he starts all three freshmen and book-ends them with Hunter at the point and Tre King in the post.

Getting to the Sweet 16 is hard. Getting there with a first-year head coach seemed almost unthinkable. Most (including this writer) thought we could see some impressive wins but ultimately be concerned more about individual growth and promising signs than a team competing for an NCAA Championship.

But it also was made possible by things that aren’t necessarily sustainable.

Iowa State only had Hunter in the ranks of freshman recruits. After nearly the entire team transferred out when Otzelberger was brought in, the transfer portal became a necessity and they molded their team Otzelberger’s way. 

Otzelberger will likely be unable to start his team over every season. Freshmen will become more of the “norm” in 2022-23 and beyond. 

But for this year, “year zero,” Iowa State was able to construct a team of college “free agents” into a menacing defensive team with some heroic performances on offense, leading them to Chicago.

Maybe it should’ve been viewed, in retrospect, as more of an “anything-can-happen” season for the Cyclones. Everyone, except for Hunter, was familiar with the college basketball landscape, and even Hunter didn’t appear as much of a freshman for long.

Now, as the Cyclones usher in a truly new era of Iowa State basketball, it’s possible they finish closer to last in the Big 12 than first. And there’s no shame in that.

Otzelberger and his staff did whatever they could to compete this season, and they struck gold.

One thing is for sure: “aggression” may as well become T.J. Otzelberger’s middle name, because I don’t anticipate him backing off of the mindset that helped his team raise the standard back up to where he thinks it should be.

And who knows? Maybe pre-conceived notions about the kinds of teams Otzelberger has in years to come will continue to be proved wrong. They sure were this season.