Iowa is at the midway point of its Big Ten men’s basketball schedule, with the main question about the team the same as it was in Game 1.
Is this a true conference title contender?
More of an answer will be formed Thursday night in Carver-Hawkeye Arena. Ohio State is the visitor, and it’s the Hawkeyes’ latest “Game of the Year.”
It’s certainly the national Game of the Night, and it’s on ESPN. Only two Top 25 teams are playing Thursday, and they’re facing each other.
Win, and No. 8 Iowa is 8-3 in the Big Ten and within a reasonably short reach of league-leading 8-1 Michigan. Fall to the No. 7 Buckeyes (8-4 in the conference), and the Hawkeyes are three games behind Michigan in the loss column and will have lost a second head-to-head matchup with another team vying for the crown within the space of a week, with Illinois the other.
It doesn’t help Iowa that it will only have had one day between games after staving off Michigan State 84-78 in Carver Tuesday. Nor is it helpful to the Hawkeyes that Ohio State is playing as well as anyone in the Big Ten.
The Buckeyes have won six of their last seven games. Their last three road contests were wins over ranked teams in Rutgers, Illinois and Wisconsin.
E.J. Liddell, a 6-foot-7 sophomore forward, has emerged as one of the conference’s top players. He has scored at least 20 points in four of his last five games and has made over 65 percent of his shots in that time.
“His play has really been phenomenal,” Buckeyes Coach Chris Holtmann said Monday on his weekly radio show. “His growth, it’s hard to really overstate the impact he’s had as a sophomore. He just continues to get better in front of our eyes.”
Holtmann has veteran guards in Duane Washington Jr., and CJ Walker who do a lot of things that win games. Walker is 49-of-50 from the foul line. Washington leads the Big Ten in made 3-pointers with 49.
What Holtmann lacks is anyone taller than 6-8 in his rotation. In what is now an old story, other Hawkeyes must produce when center Luka Garza (26.5 points per game) gets double-teamed.
Against Michigan State, the “other Hawkeyes” were reserves. Starters Jordan Bohannon, Connor McCaffery and Joe Wieskamp did a lot more sitting than usual while backup guards Joe Toussaint and Tony Perkins got season-highs in minutes played.
Sophomore Toussaint and freshman Perkins joined fellow subs Patrick McCaffery, Keegan Murray and Jack Nunge as working with Garza to create the best stretches of both halves against Michigan State. Iowa scored 15 more points than the Spartans with Nunge on the floor, 12 more with Toussaint and Patrick McCaffery.
But this deep into the season, you want to be able to lean on your veteran starters more than less-experienced backups, and we’re past the time of the season when you want players to change roles too much.
“That’s always an interesting sort of slippery slope, I guess,” Iowa Coach Fran McCaffery said, “because you want your starters to be comfortable and confident that they’re going to consistently play a certain number of minutes and get a certain number of shots.
“The bench was fabulous in the first half and once again, Jack Nunge was awesome. Then in the second half, same thing. ... the bench came in and really provided energy and aggressiveness.”
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If the coach is getting better defense and a more effective transition game with Toussaint and Perkins, so be it. But Wieskamp and Bohannon are his second- and third-leading scorers this season and are constant 3-point threats. Iowa’s best chance of winning is with them near their best.
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