116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
Entering Tuesday night’s games, Iowa was 17th in the NCAA men’s basketball NET rankings.
Does that mean anything after one week of December? Well, it doesn’t get you in the NCAA tournament. Another 14 or so victories will be needed for Iowa to pull off that trick. Getting more than that would be highly recommended for seeding purposes.
Still, the ranking reflects reality in my opinion. Iowa is a top-17 team until it’s proven otherwise, not a ninth-place Big Ten club as was picked in a preseason poll of media, and of others for that matter.
After the Hawkeyes’ last three games — two of them losses — I’m more convinced they’ll reach the NCAAs than I was before they started their gauntlet of Virginia, Purdue, Illinois and Iowa State. The following game against 6-2 Utah State in South Dakota on Dec. 18 is no bunny, either.
Monday night’s 87-83 loss to Illinois was a disappointment because it was a home loss, yes, but primarily because of the 52-23 rebounding advantage the Illini had. That was on the heels of Purdue’s great rebounding team out-boarding the Hawkeyes 42-30 in the Boilermakers’ 77-70 win last Friday.
So that area is an issue, and may remain one. But to what degree?
Trevion Williams of Purdue and Kofi Cockburn of Illinois had 18 rebounds apiece against Iowa. The Hawkeyes will face both again, and they’ll get two games with Michigan’s Hunter Dickinson and one with Indiana’s Trayce Jackson-Davis.
Overall, though, they’ll not face frontcourt talent like they met in their first two conference games. Is that any consolation? No, but maybe it should be when you look at other things the Hawkeyes have been displaying. Such as …
Turnovers, or the lack thereof. Iowa leads the nation in fewest turnovers per game at 7.9. It’s fourth in turnover margin at +8.2. There’s no two ways around it. That is exceptional.
Starting point guard Joe Toussaint has significantly cut down his turnovers-per-minutes from his first two seasons, with 1.1 per game. No one else on the team is over 1.0, including sophomore point guard Ahron Ulis, who has played 18 minutes per game.
Iowa had four, nine and four turnovers, respectively, against its last three foes. Just four turnovers against Virginia’s defense was crazy-good. Its four against Illinois — combined with forcing 18 — kept it in the game.
The defense the Hawkeyes have played recently is perhaps as good as they’ve played against quality teams in, well, a long time. They have defenders. Guards Toussaint, Ulis, Tony Perkins, and forward Keegan Murray are particularly adept, and post player Filip Rebraca hasn’t wilted against some of the nation’s best bigs in Williams and Zach Edey of Purdue and Illinois’ Cockburn.
Josh Ogundele came from deep on Iowa’s bench and didn’t back down against repeated offensive challenges by Williams Friday. He blocked two shots in limited playing time against Illinois, including one by the 7-foot Cockburn.
Perkins and Ulis are players, that’s become clear. Neither had a lot of meaningful minutes in Big Ten games last year, but both had moments in which you could see their potential. Both are blossoming quickly, giving the team depth, defense, offense and quickness.
Ulis had 11 points, seven assists, three steals and zero turnovers against Illinois in 24 minutes. Perkins totaled 30 points in the last two games, and was instrumental in Iowa chopping down big second-half contests in both.
Iowa’s coaches expressed unhappiness with forwards Keegan Murray and Kris Murray during the first half for what I assumed from my press row seat was poor rebounding and positioning. They’re intelligent, industrious players, and I would expect both to quickly learn and progress from it.
Keegan Murray had quite the sequence in scoring eight straight points in 59 seconds to cut Iowa’s deficit against Illinois to 72-69 with 2:27 left. He made a 3-pointer, he dunked off the third of his three steals, and he scored on a drive, was fouled, and made the free throw.
Six months from the NBA Draft, it’s hard to imagine he won’t be the first first-rounder from Iowa since Ricky Davis in 1998. Murray has the size, the wingspan, the mobility, the efficiency. He can guard multiple positions on defense and has an inside/outside game on offense. He has beat defenders down the floor many times this season in transition.
OK, but we live in the moment. Iowa gets no respite from its recent string of intense games. Going to unbeaten No. 17 Iowa State will be another test, to say the very least.
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