IOWA CITY — These Hawkeyes have not been shy about self-evaluation.
The Iowa men’s basketball team has had plenty to learn and learn from this season, and after a week in which two games were within grasp but slipped away, Coach Fran McCaffery and Co. used their second Big Ten bye week to look themselves in the mirror.
What were they looking for in the days between a loss at Michigan State and Saturday’s 1 p.m. tipoff against Illinois?
“You kind of work on everything,” McCaffery said Thursday at his weekly news conference. “Transition, offense, defense, rebounding, pretty much everything.”
That’s not to say the Hawkeyes are bad at all those things, but clearly they can be better.
McCaffery’s players all gave knowing nods when asked about McCaffery’s point that the team spent the last several days working on themselves. There were some frank observations from guys like Cordell Pemsl, Nicholas Baer and Tyler Cook.
Chief among the things the players talked about working on was rebounding — and for good reason.
In the conference season, Iowa has a minus-2.8 rebounding margin. In the seven losses, that number is minus-3.6. The Hawkeyes have won the rebounding margin five times in their 13 conference games so far — three times in victories and twice in losses.
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It’s not correlated directly to game results, but McCaffery and his players will be the first to say when the rebounding battle is won, everything is easier. In the two of three conference wins where Iowa lost the rebounding battle — wins against Rutgers and Nebraska at home — Iowa had to overcome deficits at one point or another and rely on hot shooting down the stretch to bring them the victory.
The Michigan State loss was a microcosm of losing the rebounding battle making things more difficult.
“I think after that loss to Michigan State it was critical for us to work on our rebounding,” Baer said, “especially on the defensive boards and just kind of getting back to some of the fundamentals that we did have — obviously that we had at the beginning of the season that fell by the wayside a little bit. It was just working on boxing out and keying in on our team defense as a whole.”
Pemsl offered a similar take, adding that part of the improvements the Hawkeyes have tried to make came in “getting ourselves in better condition to attack the glass and things like that.” Baer and Pemsl have averaged six and 4.8 rebounds, respectively, in the conference season off the bench, sandwiching Peter Jok’s 5.6 per game average in Big Ten play as the top three on the team.
Baer and Pemsl are also a part of the rotation that McCaffery has spent the days off contemplating a lot. He said after the Michigan State game that it was a fair question to consider trimming the rotation down from 11 to nine or so.
Thursday, McCaffery said he’s “thought a lot about it,” but that it can’t be cut and dried that the rotation is trimmed just for the sake of trimming it.
Fairness is vital, and several players have played well enough that McCaffery feels like they have to play. Jok, Baer, Jordan Bohannon and Tyler Cook are among the obvious ones. McCaffery also made special mention of Pemsl, Ryan Kriener, Isaiah Moss, Christian Williams and Brady Ellingson. Part of what fuels the ever-changing lineups is what’s clicking on the floor — as in the run Iowa made to erase a 13-point deficit at Minnesota.
Rotation and rebounding — they’ve been the two biggest parts of the Hawkeyes focusing on themselves this week.
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“There’s always going to be a sense of fairness with me. It’s not going to be, OK, well, I need to shorten the bench, so you two guys aren’t playing,” McCaffery said. “If they deserve to play, then they need to play, and that might mean that others don’t play as much, and we can say, well, maybe they need to play a little bit more, maybe they would develop quicker. But I’ll still probably lean toward playing guys that deserve to play.
“You try to make the best decisions you can make at the time and hope it works out.”
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