Notebook: Otzelberger talks Enaruna’s minutes, defensive adjustments as Big 12 play continues

Iowa State forward Tristan Enaruna scores a layup against the University of Texas on Jan. 15. 

Matt Belinson

Nine down. Nine to go.

The Cyclones will enter the second half of their Big 12 schedule Saturday against No. 23 Texas after a 70-61 loss to No. 10 Kansas on Tuesday. But the loss to the Jayhawks presented more questions than answers for how the Cyclones move forward.

Iowa State head coach T.J. Otzelberger addressed Tristan Enaruna’s playing time, how the Cyclones fit in the Big 12 standings and how opponents are attacking Iowa State’s stingy defense.

Enaruna’s playing time

Tristan Enaruna has started every game for Iowa State this season, but in recent games, his minutes on the floor have been at their lowest point all year.

Over the Cyclones’ last three Big 12 contests, Enaruna has played 11, 14 and a conference-low nine minutes against Kansas on Tuesday.

Before Tuesday’s loss, the last time Enaruna played less than 10 minutes in a game was Dec. 19, 2021, against Southeastern Louisiana.

What’s with the change?

Otzelberger explained that Enaruna, like the rest of his roster, will be evaluated first on their defensive effort and contribution. From there, it comes down to energy plays and getting production at specific areas of the court that each player is tasked with.

“With Tristan, we all can see when he’s had that instant impact on our team,” Otzelberger said. “He’s had a lot of those games where he starts off with a big dunk or a big rebound or those types of plays. When does that, his minutes are increased.” 

Enaruna’s must-haves when he’s on the floor include stingy defense guarding the dribble and commanding the game with rebounds.

The Kansas transfer is tied for third on the Cyclones with 80 rebounds and tied with Robert Jones with 12 blocks on the season.

In Enaruna’s last three league games, he’s averaged 1.3 points and one rebound.

“If his minutes aren’t as high, we feel he’s getting beat off the dribble, we’re not getting the rebounds, we’re not getting the rim protection,” Otzelberger said. “And when his minutes are higher, those things are standing out for our team.”

What to make of the latter half of the Big 12 standings

The Big 12 has been lauded by Otzelberger and others across college basketball as being the best conference in the country. Five teams entered the week in the AP top-25, and every team in the league has lost a conference game to display the parity.

Now that the calendar is in February, most Big 12 teams have played half of their conference schedule. But a glance at the standings won’t show much separation in the league’s teams outside of Kansas, Baylor and Texas Tech.

TCU currently sits in fourth place in the Big 12 but holds a modest 4-3 league record. Texas ranks right behind the Horned Frogs with a 5-4 record, while the next four teams share the same Big 12 record: 3-6.

Is Iowa State the fifth-best team in the Big 12? Maybe the Cyclones are really seventh or eighth.

Otzelberger was asked Thursday about what he makes of the conference and where the Cyclones fall.

Short answer: It’s hard to figure out the Big 12 hierarchy outside the known commodities to this point.

“I think even at this point, there’s certainly teams that you play in this league that you realize are as good as anyone in the country,” Otzelberger said. “But what you also realize is everyone is good. I don’t even know how to quantify who four through 10 is.”

Otzelberger described the large assortment of teams ranked four through 10 as physically and defensive-minded teams who play for each other and stick to their principles.

As of Feb. 3, nine Big 12 teams rank in the top-20 in terms of hardest remaining schedules in NCAA DI men’s college basketball (Iowa State is at No. 20).

The Cyclones currently rank sixth in the Big 12 (16-6 overall, 3-6 Big 12) and are tied with three other teams with a 3-6 conference record.

After Saturday’s road test at No. 23 Texas, the Cyclones’ next seven games will likely shake out the clutter in the latter half of the Big 12 and determine who supersedes who in the pecking order.

Iowa State’s next seven games features one bout against a team with a .500 record or better in the Big 12.

Iowa State will have two games vs. West Virginia — currently last in the Big 12 with a 2-6 league record — two matchups with Kansas State (currently 11-10 overall, 3-6 in Big 12 play) and rematches with TCU, Oklahoma and Oklahoma State. 

Defensive challenges and approach?

Iowa State, at its core, is a defense-first team. Otzelberger has made that clear in his first season leading the ship.

But as good as the Cyclones have been at containing opponents’ offensive attack, the rest of the Big 12 didn’t take long to figure out how to make life difficult for them.

Tuesday’s 70-61 loss to No. 10 Kansas provided a glaring look into what could go wrong for the Cyclones on defense — and how Otzelberger sees the rest of the season playing out from a strategy standpoint.

“What we’re seeing is people popping their five-mans in the middle of the court like [Kansas] did with McCormack,” Otzelberger said.

The Cyclones have emphasized ball pressure and getting into passing lanes and being upfront and nagging on defense — allowing opponents chances to score in backdoor cuts. Or, in Tuesday’s case, putting the five-man in the center of the floor and letting offense flow through them.

Iowa State ran into trouble vs. Oklahoma on Jan. 8 with Sooners big man Tanner Groves. Groves would not just protect the rim and be a paint statue but would receive the ball at the top half of half-court sets and let offense flow through him. This allowed Oklahoma and Kansas on Tuesday with David McCormack to spread Iowa State out.

Turnovers and applying constant pressure let Iowa State keep the ball in the outer third of the court in ideal situations.

Tuesday showed that when the Cyclones are spread out, and the paint is exposed, Iowa State is left with few options.

“For our group, based on our strengths, we need to dictate defensively,” Otzelberger said Thursday. “We’re not a team that can sit back and play a drop coverage or positional. Some teams have a 7-foot-1 guy that can just protect the rim and stay at the rim. We don’t necessarily have that type of guy.”

The Cyclones turned Texas over 20 times and got 23 points off of the mistakes in their win over the Longhorns on Jan. 15 and won the battle in the paint 30-22.