AMES — For Iowa State Saturday, winning is about as big a must as it gets for a team that’s lost three of its past four games.
Beat TCU in the 3 p.m. game at Hilton Coliseum, and the 14th-ranked Cyclones are about where we expected they’d be during this ambitious first month of the Big 12 Conference season.
Lose, and that’s not a good sign, with conference opponents Oklahoma State (road), Kansas (home), Texas (road) and West Virginia (road) in the next three weeks.
Thus, a victory against a TCU team with records of 12-3 overall and 2-2 in the conference is advised. It's especially needed for a team that jumped into the NCAA Tournament conversation after starting 12-0, after beating No. 25 Texas Tech and then after defeating a Texas team that was 21st at the time.
If the Big 12 is as good as the rankings show, and I have no reason to doubt it isn’t, then seven more wins (this includes against Missouri in the Big 12/SEC challenge) gets T.J. Otzelberger’s team (14-4 overall and 2-4 in the Big 12) in the NCAA Tournament’s serious conversation category. Going 8-10 in the strong conference, and boasting impressive nonconference wins against Xavier, Memphis, Creighton and Iowa, with a team coaches picked to finish dead last certainly would warrant a bracket line on Selection Sunday.
Unexpected results lately, like Baylor losing twice, Kansas losing to Texas Tech and expected lowly Kansas State entering the weekend with consecutive wins against Texas and the Red Raiders, are a sign of conference strength to the computer models, not weakness. That means eight wins in the Big 12 would carry weight for the Big Dance.
Thus, winning at home against a TCU team the ESPN predictor has Iowa State with a 73% chance of defeating would be highly advised.
“I know what the analytics say, and I know that when we’re playing in Hilton, we’re confident that in our fan base, in our energy, and our enthusiasm ... that special things can happen,” Otzelberger said Friday. “At the same time, all 10 teams in the league are in the top 65 of the NET. It speaks to how good everybody really is.
“Every game is important. (Saturday’s) game is really important. It’s important that we win, but every game is important to win.”
Otzelberger was correct. From No. 4 Baylor to No. 63 Kansas State, every Big 12 team currently has a top 65 home in the NET, one of many factors the NCAA committee uses in picking its 68 teams.
Iowa State is 23rd. TCU is 59th. Oklahoma State, where the Cyclones play on Jan. 26, is 50th.
So ... big game Saturday?
A team cannot afford to lose on its home court against a team it’s predicted to beat.
“It’s the best league in the country, and winning on any given day is a challenge,” Otzelberger correctly said. “There’s not a night where you say, 'Hey, this is one that we should win.'"
Iowa State’s chances improve a bunch if it plays solid defense, especially in the interior. Bigs George Conditt, Robert Jones and Jaz Kunc fouled out during last Tuesday’s 12-point loss at Texas Tech. That cannot happen again Saturday, against a team that gets a nation-leading 15 offensive rebounds a game.
Chance for victory especially improves if the defense picks up significantly from whatever that was the Cyclones tried to play at Texas Tech.
“Everything we do starts with defensive ball pressure — being the aggressor, and kind of being the antagonist,” Otzelberger said. “(Against Texas Tech), we were a step slow. We were behind the play, so we put ourselves in compromising positions, where we got fouls that were unnecessary.”
What follows may read like a contradiction of terms, but to Otzelberger, it’s fact.
“In this league, physicality is so important, that when you’re the team that’s more physical, you usually get called for less fouls, even though that doesn’t seem like it makes sense,” he said.
“When you impose physicality first, you put that other team on their heels. You have them back-pedaling when you’re the aggressor.”
For proof, re-watch last Tuesday’s loss at Texas Tech. Iowa State wasn’t physical. The Cyclones actually were more than a step slow, which certainly caused considerable Iowa State backpedaling, and backpedaling leads to fouls.
“When we’re the more physically aggressive team, we’ve gotten called for less fouls,” Otzelberger said.
Credit West Virginia, which used to win games by pressing 40 minutes from baseline to baseline, for that trend?
Credit Baylor and Texas Tech?
Without doubt, but mainly, credit the entire league for adapting.
“Everybody’s good physically; everybody’s imposing their will on one another,” Otzelberger said. “I’ve been in this league as an assistant eight seasons, and it’s been good. It’s been really good.
“I’d say uniquely right now, with how good everybody is defensively ... every night out is a war. From top to bottom, everybody’s good defensively.”
Otzelberger re-thought that, by adjusting to this:
“There’s not a bottom in the Big 12 this year.”
We’ll see how that plays out over the entire 18-game season, but right now, I don’t hear anyone arguing.
Iowa State columnist Randy Peterson embarked on his 50th year of writing sports for the Des Moines Register in December 2021. Reach him at email@example.com, 515-284-8132, and on Twitter at @RandyPete.
This article originally appeared on Des Moines Register: How many wins does Iowa State basketball need to make NCAA Tournament?