AMES - As expected the Iowa State Cyclone men’s basketball team took care of business to start their 2023-24 season after defeating the Green Bay Phoenix 85-44 on Monday night. While the Cyclones may have new faces on the court, the production stayed the same winning their sixth straight home-opener. Four players scored in double-digits and the TJ Otzelberger headache-inducing defense rose to the occasion.
Freshman dominates…and it's not who you think it is
The first basket of the season was scored by a freshman, and it was not Omaha Biliew. 6’8” freshman forward, Milan Momcilovic shined in his Hilton debut leading the Cyclones with 18 points on 6-7 shooting from behind the arc.
“He is just a really good basketball player,” Otzelberger said. “Everybody is going to focus on the fact that [Momcilovic] hit the threes tonight and those were certainly big shots, but what you are going to see from him is a complete basketball player.”
A Cyclone team that has struggled tremendously from behind the arc has been in desperate need of a player like Momcilovic. In the past two seasons, Iowa State has ranked eighth in the Big 12 in terms of 3-point percentage (33% in ’22-’23 and 31% in ’21-’22). What the forward showcased tonight was not only a quick release, but an ability to fire from anywhere on the court and in any style. Off the dribble and off the pass.
“I was not surprised,” junior guard Keshon Gilbert said. “Every day in practice we tell [Momcilovic] don’t pass a shot up.”
As Otzelberger said, everyone will look at the threes, but Momcilovic has the length and athleticism to compete with anyone. Tonight, he hauled in three rebounds and dished out the second-most assists on the team with two. With the Cyclone defense continuing to be relentless, adding an offensive weapon like Momcilovic is something we have not seen in Ames in a while.
Backcourt of Lipsey and Gilbert:
Going into the season all the talk was on the growth in sophomore guard, Tamin Lipsey’s three-point shooting. Last year, Lipsey was not looked upon as the main scoring leader with teammates like Gabe Kalscheur and Jaren Holmes carrying most of that weight. Although, when Lipsey had his opportunities, he failed to convert hitting only 5-25 from deep. The Cyclone faithful were given a taste of what an Otzelberger offense would look like with a smooth Lipsey jumper. The Ames native shot 50% from the field (4-8) and a perfect 2-2 from the three-point line and free-throw line, as he flirted with a triple-double (12 points, 8 rebounds, and 7 assists).
“For him to knock down jump shots now consistently, it means more driving lanes for our guards. He put in a lot of work in the offseason on that jump shot,” Gilbert said.
Offense has not been the identity of the Cyclones over the three seasons under Otzelberger, but tonight we saw how great this backcourt could be. The explosiveness of Gilbert mixed with the speed and shooting ability of Lipsey sets Iowa State up well when guarding conference foes like Kansas down the road. Gilbert finished his night with the second most points scoring 17 on 6-13 shooting. Most of the points from Gilbert came from him driving straight into the gut of the Phoenix defense.
“TJ tells me to get in the paint, there isn’t a science to it,” Gilbert said about his focus on challenging defenders in the paint. “It’s just get in the paint and try to make a play for my teammates and myself.”
Last season, Iowa State finished last in the conference in points per game (67.6). With Gilbert and Lipsey healthy, I do not see that happening again.
Let’s overreact both good and bad
First off, this is game one and it was against a Green Bay squad coming off a 3-28 season with a brand-new coach. Now, that is out of the way let’s overreact to tonight’s game starting with the concerns.
Omaha Biliew is the highest-ranked recruit to wear the cardinal and gold. And while there will surely be praises and high-flying highlights to talk about in his future, this will not be a game to look back on. The freshman struggled to get into any sort of rhythm offensively and defensively finishing the night with only 4 points on 1-3 shooting and the most concerning stat was his 5 fouls. Including two that he picked up in his first three minutes on the floor.
“We have a lot of belief in Omaha and what he can do,” Otzelberger said. “He wants to do it for Iowa State. Yesterday in practice he had a big smile on his face and said, ‘Coach you don’t understand how long I have come to watch games here’.”
While the three-point shooting took a stride forward the free throws early on were brutal. Iowa State shot 4-9 from the line a left a lot to be desired at the charity stripe.
Now, moving on to the positives. Otzelberger went into halftime seeing that poor free throw shooting performance and the team adapted and fixed it. In the second half, Iowa State shot 11-13 from the line. Promising sign to not only see a team make drastic changes in halftime but also the fact the Cyclones are getting to the line. Having a more consistent free throw percentage will be crucial especially when both Iowa State guards love to drive it into the paint.
Iowa State (1-0) will face Lindenwood (0-1) on Thursday at 7 p.m.