On Dec. 6, the Iowa men’s basketball team lost 103-91 at Michigan.
It was reminiscent of the Hawkeyes’ dreadful defense of two seasons ago, but this isn’t then. The Hawkeyes came home and stifled Minnesota the following Monday, 72-52, then went to Iowa State three nights later and played more winning defense in an 82-64 triumph.
The Gophers and Cyclones shot a combined 39.7 percent from the field, 23.5 percent from 3-point distance. They were guarded.
“I think you see our defensive intensity sticking for more and more minutes every time we come out,” Iowa guard Connor McCaffery said after the game in Ames.
“We’re going to score. We’re going to score on anybody, it really doesn’t matter. The better defense we can play, that’s why we won this game.”
“We continued to get stops and play defense,” Hawkeye center Luka Garza said. “That’s what kept us from blowing our lead.”
If that is the norm rather than one good week, it will be a most-interesting season for the 8-3 Hawkeyes. Let’s note some other things.
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If senior guard Jordan Bohannon opts to end his season and take a redshirt so he can do what he feels he must health-wise and play a full season next year, this Iowa team obviously would lose a cornerstone.
The 8.8 points and 3.3 assists per game and constant 3-point threat would be missed. So would the veteran presence. The player rotation would tighten even more. Garza and Joe Wieskamp already average 30 minutes per game. Their Big Ten number may be more like 35.
In the last two games, Wieskamp averaged 18 points and seven rebounds, and a lot of his scores seemed to be at key moments in games. His defense was strong. He’s good.
It’s how CJ Fredrick and Joe Toussaint would handle the extra minutes that remains to be seen. If you didn’t know while watching them, you wouldn’t peg them as freshmen. Fredrick, a redshirt frosh, is 51.4 percent (18-of-35) in 3-point shooting. Toussaint has played with an edge and a lack of hesitancy uncommon for a first-year college point guard.
The Bronx’s Toussaint played AAU ball with North Carolina star freshman Cole Anthony. He has played in tournaments in Harlem’s Rucker Park, where basketball greatness has been a summertime staple for at least 65 years. The Big Ten won’t scare him.
Connor McCaffery can play. There are those who were or are reluctant to give him the benefit of the doubt since he’s coach Fran McCaffery’s son. He wasn’t an offensive threat last season as a redshirt freshman. He is now, averaging 8.1 points.
At Iowa State, he sank a 3-pointer that slammed the brakes on a second-half 7-0 ISU run, and his team pulled away from that point forward.
“With guys like CJ and Wiesy and Jordan and Luka all around me, I’m not going to hunt 3s, I’m not going to hunt shots,” McCaffery said. “But in that type of situation I was open, stepped up, banged it.”
More importantly, he has a team-high 43 assists to just 10 turnovers.
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Garza is the male Megan Gustafson. OK, Garza isn’t quite averaging the 27.7 points and 13.3 rebounds Gustafson did last season for the Iowa women’s team. However, if he stays close to his 22.4 and 9.9, he is a slam-dunk All-America pick.
Garza returned to Iowa’s win over Texas Tech in Las Vegas last month after getting a cut above his lip that required four stitches (“without pain medication,” Fran McCaffery noted Thursday), and had a tooth loosened after taking an inadvertent elbow to his mouth at Iowa State but came back to finish the game.
“I think everyone’s a hard worker and everyone’s just tough,” Garza said afterward. “Coach recruits guys like that, tough-minded guys who will just battle through everything and play. Everyone on our roster from top to bottom is like that.”
They’ll have to be. Things only get harder with the coming of a relentless schedule in a Big Ten that looks especially good this season. If the NCAA Tournament field were chosen today, Iowa would be a lock with its record and strength-of-schedule.
December obviously isn’t March, but so far, so good.
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