‘We have something to prove’: Cyclones embrace their doubters facing LSU


Jacob Rice/Iowa State Daily

Tyrese Hunter dunks the ball against the Texas Tech Red Raiders at the Big 12 Men’s Basketball Championship on March 10 in Kansas City, Mo.

Matt Belinson

MILWAUKEE, Wis. — Motivation won’t be an issue for Iowa State men’s basketball for its first round matchup with LSU in the NCAA Tournament.

It seems like forever ago, but before the Cyclones put together their 12-0 start, a 20-12 regular season finish with seven league wins, Iowa State was viewed as the bottom of the barrel in the Big 12.

The Cyclones were the unanimous pick to finish last in the Big 12 this season coming off a 2-22 season, with ‘outsiders’ coming into summer practices with a similar message to T.J. Otzelberger and his team: Good luck this year.

And while some might consider making the NCAA Tournament in of itself a massive accomplishment and statement to the doubters, the Cyclones want more before this season’s chapter is closed.

“I remember when a lot of people came in and said that I always looked at the guys like, ‘that’s motivation. I’m pretty sure everybody had us last in everything we would have played this year,” freshman point guard Tyrese Hunter said. “We stayed true to ourselves and just kept achieving our goals that we wanted.”

Otzelberger, a Milwaukee native, said Iowa State heard the criticism and doubt coming into the season and even throughout their head-turning 12-game start. The Cyclones have not shied away from being under-manned and sometimes out-classed in terms of on-paper talent this year, but Otzelberger said Friday and any games after is about sticking to what made Iowa State’s regular season successful.

Now that Otzelberger has led the Cyclone program back to national prominence, he wants his team to embrace the doubters once more.

When you put together a team of mostly transfer-portal names that came in doubted and needed a change of scenery from their previous stop, a chip on your shoulder can be easy to form as a collective unit.

Consider that the case for Iowa State.

“Our guys relish being the underdog,” Otzelberger said. “Our guys relish coming into an opportunity where we have that chip on our shoulder and we have something to prove.”

“I expect them to play with relentless energy and that chip on their shoulder.”

The motivation could go both ways come Friday at the Fiserv Forum.

LSU’s former head coach Will Wade was fired Saturday for notice of allegations from the NCAA for five Level I Violations. Kevin Nickelberry has taken over as interim head coach for the Tigers through the transition and admitted multiple times Thursday his team has to stay focused on the moment.

For LSU, that preparation includes a top-five defense according to KenPom’s metrics.

The Tigers set a school record with 365 steals this season and held opponents to 63.5 ppg coming into Friday. LSU’s opponents rank average 18 turnovers a game this season.

Nickelberry said that defensive pressure will have to be on point against Iowa State, especially against dynamic scorers like Izaiah Brockington and Hunter.

“A lot of times it comes down to ‘Jimmies and Joes.’ Their ‘Jimmies and Joes, Hunter and Brockington are good,” Nickelberry said. “So, we’re going to have to contain them. We’re going to have to make them uncomfortable. We’re going to have to make someone else beat us.”

And now, Iowa State will have another opportunity to build on a season that many didn’t think would make it this far.

“Whoever wants it more will come out with a ‘W,’” Hunter said.

Iowa State (20-12) faces LSU (22-11) at 6:20 p.m. Friday in Milwaukee, Wis. The game will be broadcast on TBS.