CHICAGO — Bottom line: There may never have been a Sweet 16 matchup quite like this one.
The Iowa State Cyclones are on the court in their practice cardinal and gold Thursday. This is no leisurely day-before shooting session. The first drills address defense and Coach T.J. Otzelberger’s intense urging carries all the way up to the Michael Jordan Bulls title banners, hanging in the United Center.
The Cyclones' opponent, the Miami Hurricanes, will be in a little later, working out with March Madness on the scoreboard and Sweet 16 on the baseline. Oh, the joy to still be alive in the NCAA tournament.
Now consider where both teams were one year ago.
Miami’s season had ended in the ACC tournament, with a 10-17 record, its third losing record in a row. The players on the roster had lost 113 games to injuries — none of it COVID-related — the most among major conferences. The Hurricanes dressed only seven healthy scholarship players for games in mid-season. Then it got worse. The final eight games, they dressed only six. Eleven different players started a game and only two appeared in all 27.
Jim Larranaga’s program, once a solid March presence, seemed as if it was sitting on the wet sand of South Beach.
“A lot of adversity,” forward Sam Waardenburg said. “And a lot of it was out of our control.”
Larranaga’s feelings about a quick revival? “Let’s just say this is my highest level of confidence and this is my lowest level of confidence,” he said, holding one hand high, the other below his press conference table. “You can’t see how low my hand has gotten. College basketball is difficult. To build a program is extremely hard. To do it in the ACC, it’s even harder.”
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The Iowa State season had ended in the Big 12 tournament. The winter was a 2-22 nightmare, with 18 consecutive losses and the program’s first winless conference record since 1937. Coach Steve Prohm was fired six days later.
Transfer Izaiah Brockington still remembers the jokes he heard when he first visited campus after that disaster: "Hey, you guys going to win more than two games this year?"
“I promise,” he told them.
Two programs, hard times.
One year later, the Miami Hurricanes are 25-10. They went into Cameron Indoor Stadium and beat Duke. They mashed North Carolina by 28 points, and just last Sunday steamrolled SEC champion Auburn by 18. Four Miami players have started at least 32 of the 35 games.
“It’s probably not a great analogy, but it would be like playing a chess match and you start the match without your queen, one rook and one bishop,” Larranaga said of last season. “We were so short-handed. We only had six guys, seven guys. You can’t go up and down. You can’t develop the chemistry and the bond of players. You can’t learn the offense when you’re not even going against a defense.
“This year the greatest gift we have is health. So we’re enjoying the heck out of it. And we keep our fingers crossed.”
One year later, the Cyclones are 22-12. They won as many NCAA tournament games last weekend as they did all last season. They are 15-0 in non-conference games and spent much of this season snapping long losing streaks; 18 in row overall, 19 in a row against ranked opponents, 24 in a row in the league, 25 in a row to power-conference opponents, 28 in a row away from their home arena, 42 in a row when trailing with five minutes left, 78 in a row when behind with one minute to go.
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“It’s still kind of unbelievable,” said Brockington, now the leading scorer.
Since the tournament field expanded to 64 bids in 1985, only five of 576 teams in the Sweet 16 — roughly 0.9 percent — won 10 or fewer games the season before. Two of the five are in this game. By midnight Friday, one of them will be on the doorstep of the Final Four.
One year ago in Ames, Iowa, the transfer portal turned into a gusher. Neither the current Cyclones’ coach nor his top five scorers were on campus. Otzelberger was at UNLV. So was one of his guards, Caleb Grill. Brockington was at Penn State, Gabe Kalscheur at Minnesota, Aljaz Kunc at Washington State and Tyrese Hunter at St. Catherine’s High School in Wisconsin. Together, they were averaging 56 points a game — all for someone else.
Weren’t these guys a little wary to walk into a program that was 2-22?
“Their lack of recent success hadn’t really scared me off, because as far as I was concerned, that was a whole different team,” Brockington. “So I saw an opportunity for us to do something special here.”
Otzelberger explained the process: “It was really important to us that we identified guys that could help us bring back the pride to the Cyclone program. That involves people that have a very workmanlike way of approaching each and every day. We talk a lot in our program about low ego, high producing, work capacity and coachability. Those are things that you would think every program would want to put in place. But it takes the right guys to do that.”
There were potholes. Iowa State recovered from a four-game losing streak in February, including Texas mashing the Cyclones 63-41. They shook off a three-game skid in early March, including the bad day they scored only 36 points against Oklahoma State, and the 72-41 thumping by Texas Tech.
“We’ve had times where we felt like our back’s against the wall,” Otzelberger said. “But we’ve always been able to go back to those work habits, go back to that togetherness and that plan, and regain our confidence to move forward.”
Certainly, the March woes had to bring a sense of urgency. The clock was ticking. “Urgency to me is something I’ve taken a lot of pride in my entire life,” Otzelberger said. “So we were urgent the day we came in. We’ve been urgent every single day. We were urgent when we practiced today.”
Defense has kept Iowa State going in the right direction. The Cyclones scored 54 and 59 points last weekend and couldn’t be stopped. At practice Thursday, they were drilling on guarding the 3-point line, where LSU and Wisconsin combined to shoot under 15 percent last weekend. They had 24 steals against the Tigers and Badgers. But Friday they face a Miami team that committed only seven turnovers in two tournament games.
The Hurricanes have been led by the guard trio of Charlie Moore, Kameron McGusty and Isaiah Wong. Moore and McGusty started all 35 games, Wong 34, Waardenburg 32. This is a very veteran effort. Between redshirting, transferring and an extra season of eligibility due to COVID, Miami’s five starters have spent a combined 25 years in college basketball.
Their paths have not all been the same. Waardenburg has spent all six years as a Hurricane. Moore has started games for California. And Kansas. And DePaul. And Miami. A career stretching across six years, four schools and three time zones. He is a Chicago kid who has come home this weekend.
McGusty thought about leaving to pursue a professional career. The sense of unfinished business kept him a Cane. “Miami was one of the hottest schools in the country when I decided to come here,” he said. “So I wanted to leave on the same high note I came in on.
“I knew we could have a season like this.”
Both coaches have spent all season convincing broken programs of their possibilities. Larranaga has a particularly vivid example. Once upon a time, he coached a team called George Mason ...
“Sadly to say, they’re tired of hearing about George Mason,” Larranaga said of the Cinderella story he led to the 2006 Final Four. “And they have told me, 'Hey, let’s do what they did, so you can talk about us in the future rather than them.'”
Still, it’s great yarn to tell, he said, “about being underrated, underappreciated, and even basically told you’re not even going the Dance. But these guys, they’ve also created a lot of stories.”
Friday night means something to Otzelberger, whose first real break in coaching came when the Cyclones hired him as an assistant. “Iowa State is a place that took a chance on me and gave me an opportunity probably before my resume truthfully had earned an opportunity to coach at a place of this magnitude,” he said.
It also means something to Larranaga, especially given the darkness of recent times. “And my wife had to remind me every day that as far as coaching is concerned, nothing has changed," he said. "You’re going to go to practice every day, you’re going to prepare your team, you’re going to be the teacher and mentor that they need. And that’s what I needed to hear.”
So this unexpected ride is an emotional one?
“Yeah,” he said softly. “It is.”
Two teams — with a combined record of 12-39 last season — and two coaches who started this season in the back of the pack. One of them will soon have a shot at the Final Four.