AMES, Iowa — Once again, Iowa State is doing what it wasn't supposed to do.
The Cyclones made the biggest turnaround ever by a power conference team when they went from winning two games in 2020-21 to winning 22 and reaching the NCAA Sweet 16 last season.
After coach T.J. Otzelberger's second Cyclones team entered this season picked eighth in the 10-team Big 12, one of college basketball’s feel-good stories continues.
Iowa State (14-3, 5-1) is ranked No. 12 in the nation and in a three-way tie for first place in the league heading into Saturday's game at Oklahoma State.
“For me, in 20 years of doing this, it's probably the most connected group I've been around,” Otzelberger said. “They really care about each other, have each other's back and are down to do whatever they need to do for the team. There’s a rugged toughness to how we do it, but there’s a togetherness and unity at a really special level with this group and we're going to keep climbing.”
Iowa State is out to its best start in Big 12 play since 1999-2000. It bounced back from a 62-60 loss at No. 2 Kansas with a 78-67 home win over No. 7 Texas on Tuesday that was the Cyclones' fourth of the season against a ranked opponent.
“The job's not finished,” guard Jaren Holmes said. “We've worked hard to be in this position but we can’t worry about that now. We've got to keep pushing ahead.”
The makeup of the team reflects how much Otzelberger values experience.
Four of the five starters are transfers. Holmes and Osun Osunniyi are fifth-year players who were at St. Bonaventure last season. Gabe Kalscheur is in his fifth season, and second in Ames after transferring from Minnesota. Caleb Grill, who began his career with the Cyclones, is a fourth-year player who returned after a season with Otzelberger at UNLV.
Fourth-year players Tre King (Eastern Kentucky) and Robert Johnson (Denver) are the first two men off the bench.
The point guard is freshman Tamin Lipsey, who was thrust into the starter's role after Temple transfer Jeremiah Williams was injured in the preseason.
At 3.27 years per player, the Cyclones are the sixth-most experienced team in Division I, according to KenPom.com. And as always with an Otzelberger team, defense is the name of the game.
The Cyclones have held six straight conference opponents to 70 points or less for the first time since 2000, and a nation-leading 28.5% of opponent possessions end with a turnover.
They're the only power conference team to have forced 25 or more turnovers in a game three times this season, and one of three teams to force 30 or more in a game.
The Cyclones turned up their defense late in the second half against Texas. They held the Longhorns scoreless for almost five minutes while building a two-point lead to 12.
Iowa State leads the Big 12 and is in the top 10 nationally in points allowed per game (58.5), steals per game (10.1) and turnovers forced per game (19.1).
“When we come to practice, we take charges, we pressure the basketball, we block out, we do physical things,” Otzelberger said. “You aren't just going to show up and do them in the games. You’re going to play to the level of your habits, especially in the most challenging or adverse of moments.”
While defense is the team's signature, the offense has been good enough to stack wins despite losing its top two scorers from last season. The Cyclones play a deliberate pace and average just over 71 points per game. Five different players have led the team in scoring, with Holmes (13.2 ppg), Kalscheuer (12.7) and Grill (10.9) averaging in double figures.
Among their 13 remaining regular-season games, the Cyclones have two against No. 13 Kansas State, one at home against Kansas and another at Texas. The Big 12 is ranked first in conference RPI.
“Every team in this league is good and everybody can beat you if you don't play well," Otzelberger said. “We're going to continue to work and pour into each other and be ready every night because we know how tough this league is.”