PORTLAND – Six days after he was hired as Iowa State’s new coach, T.J. Otzelberger brought in a defensive-minded transfer forward he felt could impact winning for a program that hadn’t done much of it the year prior.
Likewise, Jaz Kunc was eager for some wins of his own.
Iowa State was coming off a two-win campaign in 2020-21 and Kunc, motivated by something Washington State coach Kyle Smith told the Cougars while the Slovenian forward was still in Pullman, was looking to get to the NCAA Tournament after being a part of 41 wins over three seasons on the Palouse.
“The coach at Washington State, he said ‘if you don’t make the NCAA Tournament in your college career, you didn’t do (anything)’,” Kunc recalled. “I think those were his exact words.”
Kunc endured three tough seasons at WSU, but he’s seen the other side of the college basketball spectrum since moving to Ames, Iowa, playing in all 35 games last season for an Iowa State team that advanced to the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament before losing to Miami.
The WSU transfer started 10 games for Otzelberger, including twice in the Big Dance, and had career highs in minutes (22.4), defensive rebounds (3.1), assists (1.0), blocks (0.6) and steals (0.8). Kunc was glad to cross one item off the college hoops bucket list, but he’s already working on the next one.
“Obviously it was a fun year,” he said. “But that’s in the past now. There’s a lot of good memories and we strive to make another one this year.”
It’s probably too early to determine if the 2022-23 Cyclones are tournament-good, but they’re not wasting time making new memories. One of those undoubtedly will be Thursday’s 81-79 overtime win over Villanova during the first round of the Phil Knight Invitational. Iowa State built a 16-point cushion five minutes into the second half, watched the Wildcats rally back to force overtime and responded in the extra frame to gut out a two-point win.
“I feel like that’s what we do. We play with energy, we play for each other,” Kunc said. “We’re up 16, we’re down 16, we never give up and we just keep playing our game, keep playing our rhythm. The game plan, we executed it really well, putting it down to our big guys in the post and just a lot of grit. We hustled it out at the end.”
Kunc embodied Iowa State’s toughness early in the second half, tweaking his elbow on a defensive play and holding it with his opposite hand while jogging down to the offensive end of floor. The ball eventually found the forward, who caught and drilled a wing 3-pointer, extending ISU’s lead to 39-34.
Kunc finished with only six points on 2 of 6 shooting, but the former Cougar pulled down a team-high six rebounds, had two steals, two assists and finished plus-8. Kunc has started in all four games for unbeaten Iowa State and had a 17-point, 10-rebound double-double in the Cyclones’ 80-43 rout of North Carolina A&T.
“He’s a huge player in terms of impacting winning. He makes big shots, he blocks out every possession, he’s great moving the basketball, he’s an unbelievable position defender,” Otzelberger said of Kunc. “He knows what’s coming and how to defend it. He’ll take charges and give up his body for the team. The main things he does that we expect from him that don’t show up in the stat sheet. It’s really cool to see all the impactful things, the things he can do to help us win games and that was certainly on display.”
When he arrived in Pullman before the 2018-19, Kunc was weighed 185 pounds at 6-foot-8. In five years at WSU and ISU, he’s added approximately 40 pounds to his frame and is now listed at 222 pounds on the Cyclones’ roster
“I just eat, man,” Kunc said.
A bigger, sturdier frame has helped Kunc adapt to a more physical Big 12 Conference.
“It’s the best conference in the nation, and it’s way more physical than the Pac-12,” he said. “Obviously the talent in the Pac was extraordinary. In all the years I was there, the Pac-12 sent five, six guys to the league, but I feel like in the Big 12 they’re just seasoned players. They come in, a lot of transfers, they play hard, they play with grit. … Every game in the Big 12 is a war. Nothing is given and everything is earned.”
Otzelberger, who coached as South Dakota State and UNLV before arriving at Iowa State, has demanded a level of discipline from players that’s allowed Kunc to develop in a short, successful tenure with the Cyclones.
“There’s a standard we have to follow and then everything’s on you and us,” Kunc said. “We come in every morning and at 6 a.m., we practice hella early. We come in every morning, we put the work in and it shows up on the court.”
Kunc is still keeping up with Smith and the Cougars – “shout out T.J. Bamba,” he quipped – but struggles to stay up late enough to catch most games on the West Coast. He and Iowa State guard Caleb Grill, a UNLV transfer, already have a friendly wager on a Dec. 10 game between the Cougars and Rebels.
“Hopefully they can get a dub for me,” Kunc said.
Legans, Pilots nearly stun Heels
There were two near-upsets on day one of the Phil Knight tournament. Former Eastern Washington coach Shantay Legans was part of the first, nearly guiding Portland past top-ranked North Carolina at the Moda Center.
The Pilots, with ex-Eagles Tyler Robertson and Jack Perry in the starting lineup, led for 13 minutes, 49 seconds and led with 4:32 remaining before the Tar Heels closed with a 16-6 run. Portland made only one jumper inside the final 4:32 – a Robertson 3-pointer – and went 1 of 8 from the field during that stretch.
“I liked the way our guys competed and fought,” Legans said. “There was a four- or five-minute stretch where we didn’t score a basket, so I didn’t like that too much but I liked the way they fought and played hard and we did the right things in the right moments and we just didn’t get a couple rebounds there in the second half.
“It showed we can play with almost anybody in the country, and you hang your hat on that.”
Robertson, an All-West Coast Conference selection who was recruited to Cheney by Legans, scored 13 points for the Pilots on 4-of-12 shooting and had seven assists. Ex-EWU guard Jack Perry had six assists, five points, four rebounds and two steals in the game. Another former Eagle, Mike Meadows, didn’t play for Portland due to a hamstring injury that’s sidelined him three games.
The Pilots won 22 combined games in the three seasons prior to Legans’ arrival but pulled off a 19-15 record last season and were predicted by WCC coaches to finish fifth in the conference this year.
“We came last year, wanted to make an emphasis of just competing and changing the culture of University of Portland basketball,” Robertson said. “We did that and people were patting us on the back, but we’ve never going to be satisfied with being sixth in our conference.”
Tinkle’s Beavers fall short
Oregon State, coached by Ferris High School graduate Wayne Tinkle, nearly fashioned an upset of its own and led for 18 minutes, 36 seconds against No. 8 Duke before losing 54-51 at Veterans Memorial Coliseum.
The Beavers were in front 45-42 with less than nine minutes remaining, but Duke standout freshman Kyle Filipowski knocked down a 3-pointer and guard Jeremy Roach hit a jumper to give the Blue Devils a lead they wouldn’t relinquish.
Tinkle’s Beavers closed the deficit to one points on multiple occasions, including at 52-51 with 16 seconds remaining, but Duke made two free throws and Jordan Pope missed a potential game-tying 3 at the final buzzer.
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