T.J. Otzelberger’s Iowa State Cyclones

NCAA Tournament Sleeper Iowa State

The transfer portal has been an equalizer of sorts in college athletics, giving unprecedented power to players who are looking for their ideal place to grow.

The number of players in search of a new destination appears to grow every offseason for various reasons, be it coaching changes, increased playing time, proximity to their family, or the search for a better fit in a different program. It also creates an opportunity for coaches to rebuild on the fly, finding players they can seamlessly integrate into their system while quickly creating a winning culture.

T.J. Otzelberger stunned many in his first season at Iowa State in 2021-22 after taking over a moribund program that went 2-22 the previous season. The Cyclones, as a No. 11 seed, made a Sweet 16 NCAA Tournament appearance with an 11-man roster that included six key transfers from various Division I programs. With only four holdovers from that team, many thought Iowa State would take a step back this season, but it so far has defied those expectations.

Ranked 12th in the latest AP Top 25 poll, the team is currently 15-4 and tied for first in the Big 12 — arguably the nation’s toughest conference from top to bottom. Iowa State’s conference record is 6-2 heading into a two-game road swing at Missouri on Saturday and Texas Tech on Monday. The Cyclones are still somewhat under the radar on a national level, which means Otzelberger’s crew could be a nice sports wagering value pick for a Final Four spot now as they look to grind out more wins in Big 12 play.

Getting a St. Bonaventure bounce

Tuesday Highlights ⤵️#Cyclones | #C5C pic.twitter.com/9DUzF775FP

— Iowa State Men’s Basketball (@CycloneMBB) January 25, 2023

The key to Iowa State maintaining its momentum from last season has been the arrival of St. Bonaventure teammates Jaren Holmes and Osun Osunniyi. The transfer duo helped the Bonnies reach the 2021 NCAA Tournament but struggled to live up to the higher expectations the Atlantic 10 team faced last season.

The 6-foot-10 Osunniyi is a throwback big man, averaging 9.3 points, 3.9 rebounds, and 1.1 blocks while shooting 56.3%. Holmes has rediscovered his 3-point shot this season, connecting at a 37.9% clip after hitting just 27.3% from deep in 2021-22. The 6-4 guard is averaging a team-best 13.5 points and 3.5 assists.

Among the four key returnees who gained vital NCAA Tournament experience last season, Gabe Kalscheur (13.1 ppg) may be the most indispensable. The former Golden Gopher has averaged 18.0 points in eight games since becoming a full-time starter, logging 36 or more minutes six times while shooting 46% (23-for-50) from beyond the arc and 50% overall in that span.

The offense is directed by freshman Tamin Lipsey, who has been the starter since stepping on campus and averages 6.9 points and 4.7 assists. Lipsey ranks fifth in the Big 12 with a 2.37 assist-to-turnover ratio and sixth in steals with just under 2 per contest.

Otzelberger is currently running an eight-man rotation, trying to bring forward Tre King up to speed after his eligibility started last month. The 6-7 forward has averaged 5.4 points and 3.9 rebounds in nine games coming off the bench following his arrival from Eastern Kentucky, where he averaged 14.9 points and 6.2 boards in the 2020-21 season.

Iowa State will also get a boost from the eventual return of forward Aljaz Kunc, who suffered a broken finger right before the start of Big 12 play and has missed the last eight games. Kunc, who transferred in from Washington State before last season, averaged 8.5 points, 5.9 rebounds, and 2.3 assists in the first 11 games.

What’s to like and dislike about the Cyclones

Tamin Lipsey (a 6’1 point guard) led Iowa State with six rebounds last night. Four of those came on the offensive glass and they all led to points.

The freshman continues to make winning plays and T.J. Otzelberger can’t say enough about his impact. pic.twitter.com/0vz8jdSYfX

— Jake Brend (@JakeBrendTV) January 25, 2023

The Cyclones played a decent non-conference schedule that may not reward them in March as much as originally thought when created. Iowa State posted neutral-court wins over Villanova and North Carolina at the Phil Knight Invitational. The latter came over a then-No. 1 Tar Heels team and qualified as the Cyclones’ signature victory outside the Big 12.

Also on the plus side is a home win over St. John’s, offset by double-digit losses to Iowa on the road and Connecticut at the Phil Knight Invitational. Saturday’s trip to former Big Eight rival Missouri for the Big 12-SEC Challenge is the last chance Iowa State has to burnish its non-conference resumé.

Its two conference losses to date have been by a combined four points at Kansas and Oklahoma State. It escaped TCU with a two-point win and spread some “Hilton Magic” in beating AP Top 10 teams Texas and Kansas State as well as No. 12 Baylor at home. The Cyclones still have plenty of meat left on the Big 12 scheduling bone, which includes trips to Austin and Waco in Texas and Manhattan, Kansas, to try to complete season sweeps.

Iowa State is a very good defensive team in both traditional and advanced metrics. The Cyclones lead the Big 12 in scoring defense at 59.5 points allowed per game, a figure also good for ninth among all Division I teams. Otzelberger’s team has active hands, ranking among the nation’s top 25 in steals and leading the nation in forcing turnovers on 28% of opponents’ possessions, according to KenPom.

Breaking that stat down further, Iowa State is first in opponents’ non-steal turnover percentage at 13.4% and fourth in steals at 14.6% of the time. The 18.6 turnovers forced per game rank sixth nationally, and the plus-6.2 turnover margin per contest is good for fourth. When the Cyclones do not force turnovers, they do well to play to their half-court defensive strengths. Iowa State opponents have taken 45.8% of their total shot attempts from 3-point range, and the Cyclones rank inside the top 75 in holding opponents to 31.4% from deep.

The Cyclones are a good but not great offensive team, relying on defensive prowess to create extra opportunities to score points. They are also an above-average rebounding team on that side of the glass, ranking in the top 40 by grabbing 34.3% of potential offensive rebounds. Iowa State has decent enough perimeter shooters in Holmes, Kalscheur, and Caleb Grill, who keep opponents honest and allow Lipsey to break down opponents 1-on-1 off the dribble without defenses collapsing to help.

Iowa State’s free throw shooting is a concern at 67.7%, which ranks 286th in Division I. Its offense also sometimes runs hot and cold — the Cyclones are in the top 40 in terms of assist percentage on field goals (57.8%) but in the middle of the pack in turnover percentage at 18.7%.

Checking the marketplace for deals

There is decent value in taking a flyer on the Cyclones to make their first Final Four appearance since their first tournament showing in 1944. FanDuel has the top price at +950, followed by the Kambi-powered duo of Barstool Sportsbook and BetRivers at +900. Interestingly, the Iowa-based Q Sportsbook is also in the upper range of offerings at +750, with WynnBET and DraftKings following at +700. PointsBet is the most bullish on Iowa State’s chances to make the trek to Houston, offering only +600.

Cutting down the nets in Houston is a much longer proposition, but if you can get to Dubuque or even inside Iowa to download sports betting apps, Q Sportsbook has the best offering at +4500. The next tier starts at +4000 and is the most common offering, available at FanDuel, Caesars Sportsbook, BetRivers, Barstool, and Betway. BetMGM and PointsBet follow at +3500, with Betfred, WynnBET, and DraftKings all bringing up the rear at +3000.

A handful of books currently offer markets for outright conference titles. Considering Iowa State is tied for first nearing the halfway point of league play, grabbing it at +400 at the Kambi books or +350 at FanDuel and DraftKings could prove a worthy flyer, but that must be balanced by the fact an outright title could be hard to come by. Six NCAA Tournament-caliber teams are currently separated by one game in the Big 12 standings.

Previous articles in the 2023 NCAA Tournament sleeper picks series: Xavier; Kansas State.

Photo: Reese Strickland/USA TODAY 

Author: Ryan Gonzales