Iowa Men's Basketball

Iowa men's basketball faces a heck of a Big Ten opener at Michigan

Fourth-ranked Wolverines are veteran and really good

Iowa guard Connor McCaffery (30) is defended by Michigan's Zavier Simpson (3) during the two team's Big Ten tournament g
Iowa guard Connor McCaffery (30) is defended by Michigan’s Zavier Simpson (3) during the two team’s Big Ten tournament game at Chicago’s United Center last March 15. (The Gazette)

IOWA CITY — Everything to this point has been a prologue, a preface.

The Big Ten play’s the thing.

The conference starts its annual two-game, early-season jump-start Friday with Iowa at No. 4 Michigan Friday night. The Hawkeyes are 6-2, with the defeats to DePaul and San Diego State teams that are 9-0. Iowa is fresh off a 68-54 win at Syracuse Tuesday.

This Michigan affair, though, is Iowa’s most-formidable task to date.

“The ball is in the hands of the people that make plays,” Iowa Coach Fran McCaffery said Thursday about the 7-1 Wolverines, “and I see no selfishness at all. They play defense. They rebound. They compete. They have got some depth.”

They have won 70 games since the start of the 2017-18 season. Before their 58-43 loss at No. 1 Louisville Tuesday, the Wolverines beat Iowa State by seven points, No. 6 North Carolina by nine, and No. 8 Gonzaga by 18 in successive days to win the Battle 4 Atlantis tourney in the Bahamas.

It was a nice national introduction as a head coach from Juwan Howard, who replaced John Beilein at Michigan last spring after Beilein moved on to the NBA’s Cleveland Cavaliers.

“Having watched all three of those games,” McCaffery said, “all three teams were different. I think that’s what’s impressive about what they did. The challenge of one-day prep and then beating teams that have different pieces says a lot about who Michigan is.”

Wolverines senior point guard Zavier Simpson is second in the nation in assists per game with 8.9, and he scores 11.9 points per game. Simpson had 10 points, 11 assists and one turnover when Michigan beat Iowa 74-53 in the quarterfinals of the Big Ten tournament last March.

“How he controls a game is just really impressive,” said Iowa center Luka Garza. “When you start looking at them, that’s where they start, with him.

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“He has that sky hook, or he can throw a bullet pass to the corner, or obviously dump down to (7-footer) Jon Teske, which he does a really good job of.”

Wait a second. A sky hook, Luka?

Yup. The 6-foot Simpson has frequently made running hooks. He made four in a game against Maryland last season, including one over 6-9 Bruno Fernando.

“It’s obviously very impressive,” said Garza, a hook shot aficionado. “He’s got beautiful form with it. He flows right into it off the ball-screen. You haven’t really seen that from a guard pretty much ever.”

Besides game-planning for Simpson, Teske, et al, the Hawkeyes have to figure out who will be available for duty for them at Crisler Arena. Starting guard CJ Fredrick (11.1 points per game) and backup forward Cordell Pemsl couldn’t play at Syracuse. Fredrick had a quad issue, Pemsl a sore back.

“I feel pretty good today,” Fredrick said Thursday. “I thought it was a knee-to-the-thigh issue. I kind of got off the plane (in Iowa early Saturday morning after playing in Las Vegas Friday night) and it just swelled up really big. I had trouble walking.

“I decided to sit out against Syracuse so I could get ready for Friday.”

McCaffery said Pemsl “probably” would be out Friday, “but you never know with him. It’s one of those things. We’ll see how it feels tomorrow.”

Comments: (319) 368-8840; mike.hlas@thegazette.com

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