If the Iowa men’s basketball team makes the NCAA Tournament, the last two weeks — and this coming one in Washington, D.C. — will be a significant reason why. Coach Fran McCaffery’s teams have been criticized in the past for fading down the stretch, but this team’s finish flies directly in the face of that notion. The Hawkeyes are playing their best basketball, and just in time. Things are always a little different in conference tournament play, but Iowa’s execution of late indicates it can keep the run going.
Each week of the season, we’ll break down the Hawkeyes’ offensive and defensive performance and give them grades, as we’ll as highlight each player who contributed significantly and his individual performance. This week’s Iowa Hoops: Making the Grade highlights Games 30 and 31 against then-No. 21 Wisconsin and Penn State.
Iowa at No. 21 Wisconsin, W, 59-57
Iowa vs. Penn State, W, 90-79
B+Why: Iowa players talked about their offense being potentially explosive before this season. All season long, they’ve pointed to defense being the biggest area of needed improvement because they have so many guys who can score. The way the Hawkeyes finished out the regular season was a hyperfocused example of why their previous success at various points was no fluke.
Iowa did struggle plenty at Wisconsin, going on scoring droughts of five or more minutes twice in that game, but the Badgers’ 11th-ranked Adjusted Defense (KenPom.com) had more to do with that than the Hawkeyes struggling. Of Iowa’s 19 turnovers in that game, nine were steals, and only a handful of those turnovers were unforced by the defense generally. Even with decreased efficiency, Iowa still shot 41.4 percent.
Sunday’s game against Penn State — especially the first half — was in many ways every bit what Iowa can be when everything is clicking on offense. The Hawkeyes finished that game with 1.268 points per possession and a 56.9 effective field goal percentage. They had 24 assists on 31 made shots, and a 2-to-1 assists-turnover ratio. They were good in transition, gave multiple looks to the Nittany Lions’ defense and in general were fluid throughout the game.
It’s that kind of offense Iowa will need to keep its current run going.
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B+Why: As much as Wisconsin should be credited for what it did to Iowa’s offense at Kohl Center, the Hawkeyes deserve every bit the same credit.
Zone defense has not worked well against the Badgers at many points this season, but the Hawkeyes tossed out both 2-3 and 3-2 zones in Madison, and both had positive effects. In the post — in both zone and man — Ethan Happ had a hard time finding an open shot. Things still got free on the perimeter to start, but as the game stretched on, those were fewer and farther between. The Hawkeyes also beat up the Badgers on the boards, with a 10-rebound advantage.
And in what might’ve been the most important stretch of the game, the zone press forced turnovers and multiple timeouts as Wisconsin tried to inbound, allowing Iowa to erase a seven-point deficit and enable Jordan Bohannon’s game-winner.
The Hawkeyes weren’t nearly as efficient defensively against Penn State, with open 3-point shooters all over the floor for much of the first half, but the zone settled in to begin the second half and enabled them to widen the gap while Jok did his thing offensively.
Iowa’s growth defensively from non-conference to now — even when it still struggles a bit — is noticeable, and as McCaffery has said, was necessary.
Players (in last two games)
Nicholas Baer, guard — McCaffery said after Sunday’s win against Penn State that Baer — named Big Ten Sixth Man of the Year on Monday — is “one of the best players in the league, without question.” It’s easy to sort of dismiss that initially because he doesn’t rank highly in scoring and doesn’t have the style of play that dominates games. But the list of guard/forward combo players that affects games the way he does is not long. He ranks in the top 20 of the Big Ten in eight of the 18 KenPom.com statistical categories, including fourth in steal percentage, eighth in effective field goal percentage, 10th in block percentage and in Offensive Rating. Peter Jok called him “the heart” of the Hawkeyes, and it’s easy to see why.
Peter Jok, guard — Jok finished out his Carver-Hawkeye Arena days (barring a home NIT game) with a vintage Peter Jok-style flurry of scoring, with 13 points in the first three minutes of the second half against Wisconsin. He was named First Team All-Big Ten on Monday, and while his scoring is the biggest reason, it’s not the only one: he finished the season at 5.7 rebounds, 2.7 assists and 1.1 steals per game.
Cordell Pemsl, forward — Pemsl didn’t come into Sunday’s game against Penn State until nearly nine minutes had passed, but made an impact right away that was then sustained. He was good around the rim again this week — as he has been all season, with the top shooting percentage in the Big Ten — but also was very good on the boards and in the middle of the zone on defense. He still had a few out-of-position fouls, but those are starting to become fewer and farther between.
Jordan Bohannon, guard — Ho-hum, just a game-winner against Wisconsin and five assists in each game for Bohannon this week. While he got a little sloppy with the ball against Penn State (five turnovers, too), his week was enough to be named Big Ten Freshman of the Week and to the Big Ten’s All-Freshman team. He also got to run a little bit at the off-guard position against Penn State when he and Christian Williams were on the floor at the same time. It could be a view to the future, especially if Connor McCaffery plays some point guard when he’s on campus.
Tyler Cook, forward — Without some foul trouble in the last two games, we might have been talking about Cook as Freshman of the Week instead of his teammate. Cook was another choice for the Big Ten All-Freshman team, and the way he finished the season — like the team itself — was the biggest reason why. His biggest improvement as the season has gone on has been on the boards. He’s in much better position now; much better at anticipating where to be for rebounds. His nine rebounds-per-game average this week speaks directly to that.
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Isaiah Moss, guard — It’s hard to be aggressive when minutes are sporadic, but Iowa needs Moss to stay that way as the Big Ten Tournament plays out. With Indiana the opener, having Moss producing like he has at a few points this season will be very important. He didn’t have his best week this week, but ran the break well (as usual).
Dale Jones, forward — He wasn’t a significant contributor this week, but he gets a mention in this week’s Making the Grade because his game-opening 3-pointer was just that cool. Injury-plagued stories like his don’t often get a moment like that one, and whether or not he moves on from Iowa, he’ll get to save that one forever.
Ahmad Wagner, forward — Wagner is almost too athletic for his own body. There were a few instances this week — and many this season — in which he made a drop step or reverse pivot for a move to the rim and he moved so fast, so far that he essentially worked himself out of position for a good shot. It’s an almost-comical scene because his mind and body haven’t matched up. When it does, he’s hard to stay in front of.
Brady Ellingson, guard — Ellingson hasn’t put up a ton in terms of stats recently (not that he’s had to), and didn’t get a ton of run against Wisconsin. But as part of the aforementioned efficient offensive performance against Penn State, he had 22 minutes without a turnover — all while helping facilitate with three assists.
Christian Williams, guard — Like Ellingson, Williams didn’t play a ton at Wisconsin, but was superb with the ball against Penn State. In just 14 minutes of action, he had six assists and no turnovers. Combine that with his consistent play on defense, and he’s finishing the season on a very high note.
Dom Uhl, forward — An unfortunate (for him, anyway) byproduct of the success of Cook and Pemsl is guys like Uhl don’t get as much run. The junior played just 13 total minutes last week, didn’t take a shot and collected two total rebounds.
Big Ten Tournament — Iowa vs. Indiana, 5:30 p.m. March 9 at Verizon Center in Washington, D.C. (ESPN2)
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*Full disclosure on grades: First things first, that’s by subjective view after covering and re-watching games. Second, grades are an aggregate of the week, based on an 11-point scale. A is worth 11, A- 10, and so on through F, which is 0. Offense and defense are given a grade for each game and then averaged for the week.
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