Iowa basketball hitting reset button on Big Ten play

Hawkeyes resume conference play hoping recent improvements carry over

Iowa Hawkeyes head coach Fran McCaffery talks to his team during a time out early in the second half of a men's game at Carver-Hawkeye Arena in Iowa City on Friday, December 29, 2017. (Cliff Jette/The Gazette)
Iowa Hawkeyes head coach Fran McCaffery talks to his team during a time out early in the second half of a men's game at Carver-Hawkeye Arena in Iowa City on Friday, December 29, 2017. (Cliff Jette/The Gazette)

IOWA CITY — The last time the Iowa men’s basketball team played a Big Ten game, it wasn’t pretty. A 13-point loss at Indiana was the third in what would be four straight losses to Power 5 conference teams, and the second loss in the first two Big Ten games.

The Hawkeyes were sloppy with the ball, stagnant on offense and let the Hoosiers behind the zone and into the lane over and over on defense.

Even if the caliber of teams they’ve played since hasn’t been that high, it’s clear Coach Fran McCaffery’s team has made improvements. The positives Iowa is seeing now, headed back into conference play against Michigan on Tuesday, weren’t seen even against poorly-ranked or regarded teams earlier in the season.

“I think we’re better collectively,” McCaffery said after the Northern Illinois game. “Our defense is better — not where it needs to be, but better. We needed to come into a game (against Northern Illinois) and take care of the ball. That had been a problem. A lot of times it was just parts of games where the turnovers happened. We’re handling the ball better. We’re rebounding. We’re sharing it. We’ve got a lot of productivity from a lot of different people. I feel a lot better about where we are.”

It’s been written and said before and will be written and said again, but winning makes it way easier to feel better about where a team might be. Five straight wins while blowing out teams the Hawkeyes were supposed to beat — remember, Louisiana and South Dakota State were teams they were supposed to beat on paper, too — isn’t a coincidence.

Better communication and anticipation on defense as well as more patience and focus on offense has improved things greatly on both ends. The record-tying 34 assists is the peak of what Iowa’s offense can be when it’s running well. Point guard Jordan Bohannon called that kind of ball movement “a steppingstone toward our ultimate goal at the end of the season.”

The challenge now is to prove that the gains the Hawkeyes have made aren’t just a product of playing weaker, non-conference teams.

It’s an annoying phrase, but it starts with shoring up the little things against the big teams. Take post feeds as an example. Getting the ball to the likes of Tyler Cook, Luka Garza, Cordell Pemsl, Jack Nunge et. al in better position can go a long way toward setting up a better exit pass or post move.

“We got the ball in the post cleaner than in a lot of other games (during the winning streak),” Garza said after the Northern Illinois game. “There’s been a couple games, especially on the road, where the ball gets tipped coming into us and it’s hard to get that ball. I think our guys have done a great job faking, getting around and getting us in the right spots.”

The Iowa seen in the first and final 10 minutes against Colorado, the entire Drake game and the first half of the Iowa State game is the team most expected to be there coming into the season. That it hasn’t happened has been endlessly frustrating at times for the Hawkeyes players and coaches.

The first glimpse into Big Ten play was not a pretty sight, but a lot has happened since then in terms of learning and preparing. Maybe that will work, maybe it won’t, but the Iowa players are not naive to the fact that the errors that got them six losses didn’t just vanish into thin air.

It will be a tremendous challenge to continue the recent run of execution and efficiency, but at least in asking them the Hawkeyes believe they’re up to the task.

“We felt like we could’ve played this way from the jump,” Cook said. “Obviously we got some tough competition coming up in conference play, but I think if we stay in the same mental state in terms of executing our game plan and what we want to do ourselves, I think we can carry this over into conference play. We expected this from the jump, but I’m just glad we got to it.”

Iowa and Michigan tip off at 6 p.m. Tuesday on ESPN2.

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