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AMES — There's usually an educational period when a new coaching staff takes over a program. Some time where fans, media and the rest of the league take stock of the choices being made from the bench to try to get an idea of the tendencies, quirks and philosophies of the new group.
Most times when a coach comes in, the stakes and expectations are low, so learning those leanings is often a heck of a lot more interesting than focusing on results.
That seemed to be what Iowa State was headed for this season with T.J. Otzelberger taking over after a 2-22 season for the Cyclones.
It hasn’t turned out that way, though, as the Cyclones won their first 12 games, were ranked in the top 10 and generally blew any and all expectations out of the water.
Lost in all that winning was a lot of the deep evaluation of Otzelberger and his staff’s choices in critical situations. There was, however, an interesting case study Tuesday in the 16th-ranked Cyclones’ 62-61 loss to No. 9 Kansas in Lawrence.
Otzelberger had two opportunities in the final 25 seconds with his team down a point with the ball to use his final timeout and orchestrate offense, but instead opted to let his team play in the moment.
The decision resulted in two excellent looks for the Cyclones, but just one made shot. Isaiah Brockington put Iowa State up one with 16 seconds left while Gabe Kalscheur’s open 3 just before time expired missed its mark as the Jayhawks escaped with another victory at Allen Fieldhouse.
“If we call timeout there, they’re certainly going to slow the ball down or make us throw a long pass that’s in jeopardy of being disrupted,” Otzelberger said of the sequence ahead of Kalscheur’s final attempt. “We feel like that was in our best interest. If we had to do it all over again, we’d do the exact same thing.
“I’ll always believe you put the defense at more of an advantage later in the game when they get to set up — have the guys out there that they want, have the switching that they want, the disruption they want. I was pleased with the opportunity we got, and we wouldn’t change a thing.”
While Otzelberger’s decision wasn’t validated with the ultimate result — a made shot and a win — it was by the quality of look the Cyclones got in their final possessions. A timeout probably wouldn’t have been able to generate much else.
The choice not to stop the game isn’t one fully made in the moment of the game, either. It’s a scenario Otzelberger has gamed out in advance to save him from trying to make a split-second decision amid the pressure of a tight game, a ticking clock and a difficult atmosphere.
“It’s important you think those things through ahead of time,” said Otzelberger, whose team faces Texas (1 p.m. ESPN+) at home Saturday. “Both philosophy and situational — you could have certain guys fouled out, they could have certain guys out. There are a lot of independent variables, but as you go into every game, I don’t think coaches are deciding (if they want to) foul up three or not late in the game. I don’t think coaches are deciding if they’re going to use a timeout there or not.
“You have your way you do things and what you believe is in your best interest and, when you are in the heat of the moment or the battle, you go with what you’ve worked on or what you believe in. I do think game to game you have to evaluate whether you always do the same thing or if depending on the game or opponent, that factors in.”
There are also ancillary benefits from turning the game over to the players.
“There can be times as a coach you can over-coach it,” Otzelberger said, “and that there’s so much structure the players feel like they don’t have the freedom to trust their instincts."
That style of coaching has certainly paid dividends, nowhere more obviously than with Brockington. The senior Penn State transfer had never averaged more than 12.6 points per game and was a sub-30% 3-point shooter the past two seasons.
Now, he’s averaging 17 points per game and shooting 38.9% from beyond the arc.
“We’ve seen him coming into his own offensively, and that’s not something he’s done before,” Otzelberger said. “It goes far deeper than just saying, ‘Be aggressive.’ I’m sure they were saying that (at other schools).
“In those key moments — we've had a lot of them with Brockington late where he’s made some impactful shots. We don’t want him looking at us like we have some magic. We just want him to be confident and go make the play and make the shot.”
And when Iowa State was in its most pressure-packed situations Tuesday, the Cyclones didn’t blink. They executed and got the shots they wanted.
“It shows the confidence (Otzelberger) has in us,” junior guard Caleb Grill said, “and it shows the maturity we have in our players on the team that we were able to execute in an environment like that.
“It was getting pretty loud in there the last couple minutes of the game so us being able to execute, it showed a lot of maturity.”
It also showed a glimpse into the mind of the man who is leading Iowa State out of the hole of a 2-22 season, into the top-20 present and what looks to be a brighter future.
“Your actions speak louder than what your words say,” Otzelberger said. “When you get in those (late-game) situations and you tell your players you trust them and believe in them and they’ll make the right play, you could see our guys had that confidence.
“There wasn’t a hesitation.”
Travis Hines covers Iowa State University sports for the Des Moines Register and Ames Tribune. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or (515) 284-8000. Follow him at @TravisHines21.
This article originally appeared on Des Moines Register: Inside the late-game philosophy of Iowa State coach TJ Otzelberger