By Rob Gray, correspondent
AMES — Don’t think. Just compete.
That’s Iowa State head coach T.J. Otzelberger’s ongoing message to his 15th-ranked team.
It’s also a basic, free-flowing philosophy the Cyclones got away from in Saturday’s 79-66 loss at Oklahoma.
“There were some (plays) where we were thinking rather than being the aggressor, which is what we work on every day,” said Otzelberger, whose team remains on the road for Tuesday’s 7 p.m. matchup with ninth-ranked Kansas at Allen Fieldhouse. “When you’re on the road, there’s different challenges that come into play, so that affected us. We’ve only had the one true road game up to this point.”
ISU (13-2, 1-2 Big 12) is in the midst of a six-game conference season-opening stretch that features five top-25 foes. The Jayhawks (12-2, 1-1) are trying to regroup after a 75-67 loss at No. 22 Texas Tech, and feature two elite scorers in Ochai Agbaji (a league-leading 20.5 points per game) and Ryan Braun (16.4 point per game).
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“Every night out is tough,” said Otzelberger, whose defense-driven team allowed Oklahoma to score 47 points in the second half while shooting a sizzling 82 percent from the field. “We’ve had some tough ones already. Kansas has been a good team so I know to our fans, or maybe to whoever, that might feel different, but every game is a challenge. Every night out’s gonna be tough. Every team’s physical.”
Let that intensity lag even for a moment and adversity snowballs. That’s what happened to ISU in Norman when it seemed uncharacteristically a step slow on defense after building an 11-point lead early in the second half. They started thinking. They struggled to rely on their habit-based instincts — and if that occurs at Kansas, attaining the second conference win of the season will become nearly impossible.
“(Otzelberger) just told us we can’t keep our heads down about it,” said ISU forward Tristan Enaruna, who transferred in from Kansas over the summer. “We can’t be caught up in it too much. Adversity is a good thing, kind of. You’ve got to learn from it and I feel like this happening earlier in the conference season is better than it happening late, so I feel like this is only going to help us.”
But only if the Cyclones strictly adhere to that “aggressor” mentality against a league filled with similarly tough-minded teams. Half of the Big 12’s defenses rank among KenPom’s top 25 in that category — and ISU leads the way at No. 6 despite Saturday’s setback.
So the loss at Oklahoma could be a blip, a reality check, a chance for the Cyclones to fully recommit to their grit-based formula for success.
“More than anything, we need to keep being who we are in how we’ve gotten to this point,” Otzelberger said. "It’s pressure the ball, it’s rebounding energy, it’s ball toughness. And then it’s togetherness. All the time we spent together, you want that to come out when things become more challenging.”
That challenge-riddled gauntlet began with the season-opening loss to top-ranked Baylor and continues through this grueling six-game stretch as well as the entire 18-game round-robin conference slate.
That’s why the “don’t think, just compete” message must morph into a mantra — no matter the opponent, no matter the venue.
“Everybody’s gonna take losses,” Otzelberger said. “It’s gonna be a tough season in the Big 12.”