CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Fran McCaffery was sarcastic and feisty after his Iowa men’s basketball endured a tough 80-75 loss to Illinois here Friday night, but he wasn’t moping.
Nor should he have been.
The Hawkeyes tumbled for the second-straight game, but this wasn’t a flop like their previous outing, an 81-69 defeat at home to Indiana. This was a battle-and-a-half, a wonderful college ballgame.
It was a much better display of skills and aggressiveness than the vast majority of televised games you might randomly flip to on any given day or night.
It was a game the Hawkeyes could have won, absolutely, but it also was a road game against a fine opponent. The game’s second half offered hope the Hawkeyes can learn how to at least offer some resistance against great guards.
That didn’t happen in the first half when All-America-to-be Ayo Dosunmu notched 19 points and, in the words of Iowa center Luka Garza “was getting whatever he wanted in transition.”
Dosunmu got just two second-half baskets, neither from penetration or fastbreaks.
Alas for the Hawkeyes, Garza got in foul trouble and played just 12 minutes in the second half. He drew just two fouls in the game, the first time all season he forced less than four. Iowa didn’t shoot a free throw in the contest’s last 10 minutes.
“I guess I’ve got to do a much better job of getting Luka Garza to the free-throw line, apparently” McCaffery said. “I’m just a horrendous coach. Just one free throw (for Garza), that’s my fault. I’ll take full blame for that.”
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You don’t need prescription eyeglasses to read between the lines. McCaffery wasn’t thrilled with the officiating, and wasn’t going to say anything to get fined or suspended.
The good news: The Hawkeyes didn’t collapse when Garza spent time on the sideline, nor were they inadequate because starting guard CJ Fredrick couldn’t play because of a leg injury.
Jack Nunge blocked three shots in the seven minutes he took Garza’s place after Garza was assessed his third foul with 17:30 still to play. Other subs answered the call and kept the Hawkeyes afloat.
“We had new guys in different spots,” McCaffery said. “I thought they met the challenge.”
Freshman forward Keegan Murray got his first start, and had a team-high eight rebounds to go with eight points. He played 31 minutes, nine more than his previous most.
Point guard Joe Toussaint utilized his quickness and aggressiveness to make some positive things happen. Freshman guard Tony Perkins entered the game for the first time with 10:20 left in the game, and had two assists and two rebounds in under three minutes.
“Keegan was really good, Patrick (McCaffery) was good,” Fran McCaffery said. “They met the challenge.
“How great was Nunge, when Luka was on the bench?”
Murray showed he could handle a larger role. Nunge and Toussaint have a lot to offer, and showed it Friday. Perkins looked comfortable playing meaningful minutes.
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“He’s figuring it out,” said McCaffery. “He knows where to go, what to do. He knows how to play through situations. I just loved his tenacity tonight. That kid’s a competitor.”
It all matters because after going eight days between games, the Hawkeyes’ schedule is suddenly scrunched NBA-style. Iowa plays Michigan State at home Tuesday, Ohio State at home Thursday, then is at Indiana the following Sunday and hosts Rutgers three days later.
“We’ll handle it,” McCaffery said.
So this loss stings, but isn’t a hollow one like the Indiana game. Iowa played in a game with 22 lead changes and eight ties on the road against an Illinois team that has as much Final Four potential as any Big Ten club.
“Hopefully we’ll be able to see them in the Big Ten tournament or past that,” Garza said.
The prediction here is this two-game losing streak is a slip, not part of a slide, and that the Hawkeyes sweep the four aforementioned games to come. Easy, it obviously won’t be.
The season gets cranked up for this team in the week ahead. Iowa will either remain viable in the Big Ten’s race for first place or won’t. Nothing that happened Friday suggests the latter.
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