It was a 29-3 run stretched over five days, a shift to another gear that sent the Iowa men’s basketball team to higher ground.
Yes, the Hawkeyes face potential peril in all four of their remaining regular-season games. Particularly Tuesday night at Michigan State. However, the ways they finished their game at Minnesota last Sunday and started the one against Ohio State at home on Thursday may make it the week that will be most remembered when the story of their 2019-20 regular season is written.
Trailing 55-47 with 5:21 left at Minnesota, the Hawkeyes did what they had done precious little of three days earlier in an 89-77 loss at Indiana. Namely, they defended their tails off. They finished the game with an 11-0 run for a 58-55 victory, and got their first Big Ten road win of the season over a team not named Northwestern.
With starting guard CJ Fredrick still out with a sprained ankle, Iowa stepped right into another stern challenge. That was trying to beat Ohio State, a ranked team coming off wins over tough outfits in Rutgers and Purdue.
The Hawkeyes opened with an 18-3 blitz, and kept the hammer down in winning 86-77. For the second-straight game, the opponents hawked Iowa’s Joe Wieskamp extra hard without Fredrick’s 3-point threat to worry about. For the second-straight game, other Hawkeyes came through.
Those 11-0 and 18-3 runs last week added up to a better place for now in the Big Ten standings.
“That’s the way we have to play,” Iowa Coach Fran McCaffery said. “We just can’t put it all on (Luka) Garza and Wieskamp, that’s not the team we have. We wouldn’t be sitting here with 19 wins if that were the case.”
All season long, McCaffery has noted that his bench guys are really starters in subs’ clothing, referring to Ryan Kriener, Bakari Evelyn and Cordell Pemsl. Kriener has been a starter in Fredrick’s recent absence, but the point is this: Kriener and Evelyn are seniors, Pemsl a fourth-year junior.
That mattered a lot at Minnesota. Evelyn, Kriener and Pemsl all played great there. That mattered a lot against Ohio State. Those three all played great in that game.
Had they not been up to the moment, Iowa would have been in danger of sinking toward 11th place in the conference and a dreaded Wednesday spot in the Big Ten tournament.
Instead, the Hawkeyes are 10-6 in the league and in the fight to finish in the top four and skip directly to Friday at the league tourney for the first time since 2007.
Doing that won’t be easy with three of the conference’s other five top teams (Michigan State, Penn State, Illinois) left to play, two of them on the road. Nonetheless, 10-6 looks terrific right now for a club with a player rotation almost small enough to fit in a minivan.
Before the Indiana game, I thought I saw a wall ahead that the Hawkeyes were about to hit. At Indiana and Minnesota in a four-day period, then Ohio State at home, then Michigan State in East Lansing. Better teams than Iowa have been beaten down by such a stretch, especially in the dog days of February.
Iowa was 10-6 in the Big Ten last year and then dropped its final four conference games. The 2015-16 Hawkeyes finished 12-6 in the league, but lost four straight from Feb. 17 to March 1.
Iowa has had at least a three-game losing streak in every season since 2005-06 when it went 25-9. This season, it has lost two straight games just once over four months.
“I think we’re too tough to hit a wall,” Garza said Thursday. “We’re really experienced. We have games where we hit a wall and just try to push through it, and flush games that we played bad, and don’t let it carry over. I think we’ve done a really good job of that.”
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In Game 25, the 265-pound Garza played 35 minutes. Last week, he outplayed two of the Big Ten’s best big men in Minnesota’s Daniel Oturu and Ohio State’s Kaleb Wesson. If that’s hitting a wall, the wall is getting the worst of it.
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