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AMES — Gonzaga. Duke. Purdue.
And Iowa State.
What links them?
They’re the only four men’s basketball teams in the nation with multiple Top 25 wins, but there’s more.
Who’s now among the Top 25, just six (unbeaten) games into a new head coaching regime?
The Cyclones of T.J. Otzelberger, that’s who.
After winning the pre-season NIT in New York last week, the rookie Iowa State head coach and a collection of players who didn’t even know each other before arriving on campus last summer suddenly are ranked 19th this week by the Associated Press.
That’s big news for a program with 2-22, including 0-18 in the Big 12 Conference, on its not-too-distant resume. It’s news, considering Iowa State men’s basketball hadn’t been rated since No. 19 in February … of 2019.
Not a bad start for a team that coaches picked to finish dead last in the Big 12.
“We haven’t played any Big 12 games, so all those things could still be a possibility,” Otzelberger said Monday. “What I would say is I’m not a real exciting and forward-looking type of person. I do the same thing every single day. Our team does the same thing every single day.
“What I know, is our emphasis and focus is being really good in practice. My interest is in the daily habits, (and) the progress every day. You’re going to play to the level of your habits in key moments.”
Iowa State upset then-No. 25 Xavier and then-No 9 Memphis last weekend. The Cyclones, who host Arkansas-Pine Bluff Wednesday, play at Creighton on Saturday. They host Iowa on Dec. 9. The Big 12 Conference starts Jan. 1 at home against defending NCAA champion Baylor.
“It’s definitely a good start, really,” forward Izaiah Brockington said. “Coming into this year, (being ranked) wasn’t even a goal we discussed, (but) to finally be recognized somewhat is good. We’re definitely feeling we’re bringing basketball back to Ames. We’re bringing the magic back, but it’s just a start. We want more.”
Reality is this is the best start for Iowa State men’s basketball since the 2015-16 team was 9-0. This is reality, too: The Cyclones beat two ranked teams in three days, after winning just two games total last season, and so’s this:
The season is barely three weeks old. Let’s keep all this in perspective.
“That’s not our goal, to be ranked in the third week,” dandy freshman point guard Tyrese Hunter said. “We have higher goals. I feel like a number next to your name really doesn’t mean too much to us. We still have to go out there and get better every day.”
Fran Fraschilla worked the preseason NIT for ESPN. Count him among the impressed.
“When they come out of the tunnel (Wednesday night), they deserve a standing ovation,” he said. “I did not expect to see Iowa State out-play two Top 25 teams. What they did to the ninth-ranked team in the country was almost embarrassing.”
That’s a complimentary reference to the Cyclones’ 78-59 victory against Memphis, the game in which Gabe Kalscheur scored 30 points, grabbed eight rebounds, had five steals in 37 minutes, and yes, the Minnesota transfer is the Big 12's most recent player and newcomer of the week.
“Where Gabe’s been terrific, is how he approaches every single day,” Otzelberger said. “Gabe had eight rebounds. Gabe was taking charges, getting steals, and flying all over the court. When you play that hard, the offense seems to go your way.
“That was one of the finer games, if not the best, of any player I’ve coached in terms of how he imposed his will and his spirit both offensively and defensively.”
It’s come together since just last June, when players started arriving on a campus as foreign to them, as they were to each other.
“We knew what we had,” said Brockington, a Penn State transfer. “To see it come to fruition like this — we’re doing it by defense. I’m really proud of the guys. We knew we could play. We just had to go out there and show it.”
Again, it’s just three weeks into the season. Iowa State still has two Power Five non-conference opponents to face in the next two weeks. The Big 12, which also includes Top 10s Baylor, Texas and Kansas, is still a month off.
All that aside, already tripling last season’s victory total beats the alternative, for a first-time Iowa State coach with a roster that includes six four-year transfers and a true freshman.
“It remains to be seen how they can grow from this,” Fraschilla said, “but if they play like they played in New York, Hilton Coliseum won’t be a fun place for opponents.”
This article originally appeared on Des Moines Register: Why ESPN's Fran Fraschilla says Iowa State basketball deserves ovation