Iowa State basketball's elite defense adds the one thing it lacked last season

There has been little not marveled upon from the 2021-22 Iowa State men’s basketball season. The turnaround from 2-22 to Sweet 16 in a single season was amazing enough, but that the Cyclones accomplished the feat without a bevy of All-Americans or NBA draft picks made it all the more astonishing. 

Perhaps, though, one aspect of the Cyclones’ season that hasn’t been pondered or appreciated quite enough is that they constructed one of the best defenses in the country without a critical component on that end of the floor: rim protection. 

The Cyclones had little-to-no shot blocking but still finished the season with the nation’s fifth-best defense, according to stats site KenPom.com. 

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And while the roster is turning over in significant ways from last season with key departures, Iowa State has made major additions on the defensive end of the floor – notably with a pair of shot-blocking transfers in VCU’s Hason Ward and St. Bonaventure’s Osun Osunniyi, who committed Friday. 

“Having guys like that, with that size and that length and that athleticism on your front line and protecting the goal,” Iowa State coach T.J. Otzelberger said Friday at the annual Coaches vs. Cancer gala in West Des Moines, “it gives you a chance to erase baskets at the rim, contest a lot more shots and hopefully get us out in transition even more.” 

The Cyclones’ defense was truly an outlier among the nation’s elite last season. They ranked 115th in defensive shot blocking percentage (9.8). No other team in the defensive overall top-10 was ranked outside of the top-50. Beyond that, six of the top 10 defenses in the country had top-15 block percentages. 

“I do like our length,” Otzelberger said, “and we’ve put this together very specifically to have that defensive length, athleticism to not only disrupt but protect the rim.” 

The 6-foot-9 Ward blocked 8.5 percent of all shots while he was on the floor last year or VCU, which was good for 45th nationally. That was actually down from 12.1 percent during a junior campaign that saw him rank in the top-10 in the country in the statistic. 

Osunniyi, a 6-foot-10 senior, won Atlantic 10 defensive player of the year the past two season and has never registered a block percentage below 10.6. The 12.1 percent he logged last year was 15th in the country. 

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“I’m a rim protector,” Osunniyi said Friday in a phone interview. “I’ve been that for the last four years. I’m bringing that to Iowa State. Being one of the best rim protectors in the country, I pride myself on my defense. 

“It’s natural. I’ve been doing it since I started playing basketball. I’ve gotten better.” 

Adding shot blocking is a tantalizing prospect for a Cyclones team that constructed a dynamic defense built on pressure that created a constant stream of turnovers. Iowa State, though, isn’t just adding rim protection to that same defense.  

The Cyclones will have to build that defense again after high-profile departures of Izaiah Brockington (NBA draft) and Tyrese Hunter (transfer portal) that leave the Cyclones with four rotation players returning from last season’s surprising success. 

Ward and Osunniyi add a major dimension to the defense, but the Cyclones will have to once again be committed to creating an elite unit on that end of the floor if they hope to return to the NCAA Tournament. 

“Coach T.J. brought in a team that doesn’t have any ego,” Osunniyi said. “Guys want to win games. They want to play together and do whatever it takes to win games.  

“I think all of our mindsets are going to be in the right (place). With one goal – to play for a national championship.” 

Certainly, Otzelberger and his staff showed last year there is a path for the Cyclones to compete with a defense that can overcome offensive shortcomings. 

“We believe in the process that we’ve put in place in the summer,” Otzelberger said, “and we’re very demanding and disciplined in how we develop our daily work habits. Guys gain confidence and unity from that investment that we make each and every day, and that proved to be true last year. 

“Excited to get to practice this summer and see what it looks like with those guys out there, but I’m not going to jump ahead too far and say it’s going to be better than last year or compare it because we were fortunate with what our guys did and hopefully we can accomplish that same thing this year.” 

Travis Hines covers Iowa State University sports for the Des Moines Register and Ames Tribune. Contact him at [email protected] or  (515) 284-8000. Follow him at @TravisHines21.

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