Iowa basketball facing challenge of replicating winning performance

Hawkeyes have yet to prove version that won Thursday at Illinois is version everyone should expect

Iowa forwards Nicholas Baer (51) and Luka Garza (55) block Illinois forward Leron Black's shot Thursday at State Farm Center in Champaign, Ill. (Mike Granse/USA TODAY Sports)
Iowa forwards Nicholas Baer (51) and Luka Garza (55) block Illinois forward Leron Black's shot Thursday at State Farm Center in Champaign, Ill. (Mike Granse/USA TODAY Sports)

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Once is not enough.

The Iowa men’s basketball team played quality basketball on Thursday night in a 104-97 overtime win at Illinois, picking up the first Big Ten Conference win of the season. Especially in the second half, the stagnation on offense turned into a purposeful flow, where players off the ball moved well and everyone shared it efficiently. The guessing and confusion on defense at least turned into activity and effort.

But it was one game. As it stands the day after, the Hawkeyes (10-9, 1-5 Big Ten) have yet to prove that what happened in the second half — completing a rally from down 20 in the second-largest road comeback in program history — is what should be expected, not an exception.

“We all love this feeling right now and we want to feel it again,” freshman forward Luka Garza said. “We can see what we’re like when we play at this level and see what our potential is. And we can play better than what we did. We should never get down (20). That’s something we can improve on. We’re not going to have those kinds of nonchalant performances anymore.

“We had a mindset change. … That’s what we need to do to get wins. That’s our type of team. That’s what we need to focus on.”

Sophomore forward Tyler Cook said Thursday night the challenge is “figuring out who works well with who, what we need to do offensively and defensively to get the W.” That’s a message that has been consistent even through the losses, but Iowa got some clues as to possible answers against Illinois.

More than a few things were different in that second half, namely help off the bench and frontcourt players other than Cook producing offensively — Garza and Ryan Kriener, specifically.

Head coach Fran McCaffery pointed out a list of things that improved, but giving Cook some relief from shouldering all the production made life much easier for the Hawkeyes. Garza’s offensive output, the physical, bruising post-ups and fighting for rebounds on the offensive glass, opened up space to drive and pass for himself and others.

It’s a factor that, if replicated, could provide much-needed sustainability to Iowa’s offense, which has only shown flashes of being what they and everyone else expected them to be this season.

“When you’ve got bigs that can score, they can’t focus on Tyler Cook exclusively,” McCaffery said. “I was proud of the fight. We had to make some adjustments. We weren’t defending like we needed to. They were scoring and we were sloppy. Sometimes your offense is sloppy against Illinois because of how they play defense. You don’t have easy ball movement opportunities.

“I thought the critical thing was Kriener’s performance to allow (Garza) to be fresh in that (final) stretch of the game. When he came in, he came in with energy and confidence. That spurt was huge for us and I think for him.”

Kriener’s game off the bench doesn’t jump out on the stat sheet. Five points and four rebounds in 12 minutes aren’t going to earn him an award, but there was no doubt he earned the nine second-half minutes he got. His rebounding and care with the ball on offense — a turnaround from his last several performances — allowed Iowa not to miss a beat when Garza was taking his breather.

McCaffery has lauded his bench, and in defending such a deep rotation said he’s confident in that because there’s no drop-off in talent. Until Thursday, his bench hadn’t backed that up. If Kriener was proudest of anything with his performance, it was, “good to kind of live up to everything coach has been saying about us, that when we come in there’s no drop-off, and I think we showed that (Thursday) and proved what he’s been saying.”

One of McCaffery’s go-to sayings last year, when basically all these current guys were freshmen, was that they needed “to go through it” to understand what it takes to win. Maybe you can add “again” to the end of that statement now, because in a new year, it seems there was a reset button hit.

Until Thursday, Iowa’s losses felt like a self-fulfilling prophecy, where games followed the same pattern. Now that there’s tangible proof it can be different, there’s at least the possibility they can use the experience and the film to ensure it wasn’t just a one-time thing.

“It’s hard when you’re not winning Big Ten games in the first place because you don’t really have a steppingstone to look back on,” sophomore guard Jordan Bohannon said. “All we had was last year (before this). It’s not really the same team; it’s not the same feel (as last year). Hopefully getting this first road win, we’ll have something to look back on and know that obviously it’s like this in any game in the Big Ten; look back on it and know what we did well and work on what we did bad as well.”

l Comments: (319) 368-8884; jeremiah.davis@thegazette.com

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