After three straight losses overall and five straight Big Ten losses to begin conference play, the Iowa men’s basketball team broke through for its first victory at Illinois — thanks to a second half in which the Hawkeyes found a solution, even if just for one night, to what was ailing them.
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 18 and 19 against Maryland and Illinois.
Iowa at Maryland, L, 91-73
Iowa at Illinois, W, 104-97 (OT)
BWhy: The first 15 or so minutes of the first half was more of the same for a struggling Iowa offense. The Hawkeyes scored, but it was exceedingly difficult and buckets came because of a mistake from Illinois rather than a successful set play or shot in the rhythm of motion.
But what started the comeback from down 20 was attacking the basket. Head coach Fran McCaffery has wanted the offense to be more balanced inside and out, and in those last five or so minutes, the balance came at the line. The way Iowa attacked the Illinois forwards was tactical and efficient because the Hawkeyes converted at the line. Given the way the game was being officiated, the on-court IQ for Iowa to recognize that and take advantage was a trait that hadn’t been shown in a while.
Then, in the second half, the flow and aggressiveness that had only been around in non-conference play returned. Off-ball screens were plentiful. Back cuts were frequent and special awareness was much better. All of the above allowed the ball to move more freely and kept Iowa from having to rely on excessive dribbling.
All that was boosted by effectiveness and good decision-making on runouts and in transition. It was a big-time turnaround from what had been a tremendous struggle for weeks.
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C-Why: Iowa probably benefited a great deal from playing an Illinois team that was as jittery mentally as the Hawkeyes had been.
McCaffery’s team oscillated between man and zone in the first half against Illinois and none of it really mattered. Iowa’s 3-point defense was horrendous, as Iowa couldn’t get around screens and couldn’t keep up with rudimentary ball movement. Illinois didn’t have to try desperately hard to get to 54 points at halftime.
But then the second half happened. The same Hawkeyes zone that had allowed open shot after open shot suddenly was active in passing lanes and highly effective at preventing entry passes or dribble penetration. They forced turnovers and capitalized on that. Illinois just passed the ball around the perimeter with no real purpose until the end of the shot clock, when a shot was heaved.
Iowa didn’t make huge adjustments, it didn’t appear. There was some 1-3-1 zone sprinkled in with the 2-3, but the biggest boost for the Hawkeyes was the timing of the changing defenses and the effectiveness when they did switch. It still left something to be desired in that Illinois got good looks when it executed, but it was a very clear and vast improvement.
Players (in last four games)
Jordan Bohannon, guard — In the last week, Bohannon has lived up to the hype in terms of scoring — of that there can’t really be any doubt. Especially at Illinois, he was consistently the lethal version of himself he showed so much last year, finishing a point shy of his season and career high of 30 (vs. UAB). A new wrinkle, in the second half at Illinois, was he was able to create his own shot a little better. He’s gone into the lane a bit more recently, relying on floaters, and it’s gotten some traction. His performance in zone defense was better, too.
Isaiah Moss, guard — Moss followed a 25-point performance at Maryland with 12 points at Illinois. He didn’t shoot it very well — just 4 of 11 against the Illini — but helped keep the ball moving, and his aggressiveness in finding shots forced the Illinois defense to stay honest on him. One thing he (and Bohannon, for that matter) didn’t do super well was rebound long shots. He had a shot at a couple and didn’t secure them for run-outs. It’s not a major need, but can facilitate a lot.
Tyler Cook, forward — After the first half at Illinois, where he had 14 points and Iowa looked a lot like the version that lost its first five conference games, it looked like it was going to be another night where he would have to shoulder the load. Instead, his second half was pretty quiet, all things considered. He still went for 21 points, but worked mostly as a conduit to his teammates and a decoy of sorts on several possessions. His biggest contribution, though, came defensively in the second half, where he stuck his hands in passing lanes and grabbed three steals in those final 20 minutes.
Luka Garza, forward — The Illinois game probably is his best all-around performance as a Hawkeye, all things considered. His first half was a little stunted, as he grabbed several rebounds but couldn’t get the putbacks. Late second half and overtime was his time to shine, though. The way he used his body to offset his lack of quickness was the exact way in which it was envisioned he’d make a positive impact at Iowa. He played like he was much older than he is, forcing multiple Illini defenders into foul trouble.
Nicholas Baer, forward — He gave a steady performance against Illinois that might not have jumped out statistically, but still was a vital part of the victory. When Iowa’s defense was working at its best, he was playing within himself and was one of the chief communicators. Especially in the press, Baer’s court presence was palpable. He’s trying to be the leader, as the only upperclassman that plays significant minutes, and it showed in the overtime win.
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Maishe Dailey, guard — Either Dailey didn’t understand his orders in the timeout at the end of regulation or he went rouge in deciding not to foul Trent Frazier before half court, which resulted in the running 3-pointer that sent the game to overtime. McCaffery clearly wanted to foul, but IF Dailey’s understanding was to defend, he did his job as best he could’ve. He played hard, close defense without fouling that forced a wild shot that just happened to go in. Not an ideal scenario, but it’s a teachable moment.
Ryan Kriener, forward — Kriener was happy to contribute, and as usual was frank in his assessment of what happened. When asked if his job was to give Garza some relief, Kriener said “my job is to go play hard regardless.” When asked if it was a satisfying performance, he said yes, because of his personal struggles, as well as the chance to show McCaffery’s comments about the bench not being a drop-off weren’t just words.
Cordell Pemsl, forward — The Illinois game was a very frustrating one for him, playing just seven minutes while picking up four fouls. But in those seven minutes, Pemsl was very effective. He had four points, making both his field goal attempts, and grabbed three rebounds. Several other players who see the floor for Iowa take much longer to have that kind of impact. Of these last few players, his was the one performance that felt like it has a good chance of quickly rebounding.
Brady Ellingson, guard — Ellingson played 12 minutes against Illinois after not playing against Maryland, which felt a little like a statement from McCaffery to Ellingson about how much he’s valued. Still, in those 12 minutes, Ellingson didn’t offer a huge contribution. His two points were on a running jump shot. Other than three turnovers, that was his only stat.
Ahmad Wagner, forward — Wagner was subbed in the offense-for-defense scenario at the end of regulation, but that was the most he was involved in the Illinois game. Kriener’s 12 minutes came at Wagner’s expense because of his play on both ends. Wagner has become less and less an important part of what Iowa is doing, judging by his minutes played, as well as the rest of his stats.
Jack Nunge, forward — Nunge has fallen a long way off from the young man who earned a starting position earlier this season. His body language is like blood in the water for opponents. Opposing offenses attack him with abandon when he’s on the floor because of it. He has the skills to overcome what’s not working, but he needs a lift in confidence big time.
Iowa at Rutgers, 6 p.m. Jan. 17 at Louis Brown Athletic Center in Piscataway, N.J. (BTN)
Iowa vs. Purdue, 11 a.m. Jan. 20 at Carver-Hawkeye Arena (ESPN)
*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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