IOWA CITY — Since Jan. 10, the men’s basketball teams of Maryland, Michigan, Rutgers, Wisconsin, Illinois, Ohio State and Penn State have lost to Iowa at Carver-Hawkeye Arena.
Six of those teams were ranked when they came here, and all seven may be headed to the NCAA tournament along with 20-9 Iowa.
Who would have said that about the Hawkeyes last Nov. 11 when, in their second game of the season, they lost here to DePaul, 93-78?
“I think when we lost to DePaul early in the year it really hit us,” Iowa center Luka Garza said Saturday after the Hawkeyes’ 77-68 victory over Penn State. “We took that and made sure we were going to protect our home court the rest of the year.”
Winning every Big Ten home game so far and doing so by an average of 8.7 points is protecting home, all right. With a moat and dragons.
“I think it’s good players, playing together, locking into the game plan,” said Hawkeyes Coach Fran McCaffery. “None of them have been perfect, so there’s times in games somebody makes a mistake, somebody else has to step up.
“I think that’s character that exists in the locker room and a commitment they have to each other to know and understand what’s necessary to play through a run. And they (Penn State) had a pretty good run in the first half.”
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The 16th-ranked Nittany Lions, who now are tied with Iowa in the Big Ten standings at 11-7, pulled to a 30-22 lead with 6:10 left in the first half. They were fast and crisp. They also trailed 35-34 by halftime. Iowa pulled away virtually as soon as the second half started.
Everything seems to get pointed Garza’s way when the Hawkeyes are mentioned this season, understandably. The man had 25 points and 17 rebounds Saturday, and averages 23.7 and 9.8. If he doesn’t win National Player of the Year honors, he’ll surely come close.
Penn State Coach Patrick Chambers gave Garza a hug that appeared filled with appreciation in the teams’ handshake line, but ladled respect on a different Hawkeye in his postgame press conference.
“I think the biggest difference for me is Connor McCaffery,” Chambers said. “Man, is he steady. He is the rock that keeps everything together.”
“I appreciate Pat saying that,” Fran McCaffery said when told the comments, “and I think it’s an astute observation from the standpoint that it’s exactly what he does.”
Connor McCaffery took just two shots Saturday, 3-pointers he made. He had four assists, zero turnovers, adding to his wide lead as the nation’s top player in assist-to-turnover ratio.
You can’t overestimate how much this heady, steady third-year sophomore has been for the Hawkeyes. He isn’t like a coach on the floor, he is one.
“He starts the game guarding Lamar Stevens, one of the best players in the country,” McCaffery said about his son. “He’s giving up 30 pounds. That’s not an easy cover. Then he’s playing point guard against Jamari Wheeler, one of the quickest players in the country.
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“He’s one of those guys when things get sideways, he’s the guy they lean on in terms of making sure we’re all running the right set, we’re all in the right defense, we’re all connected at both ends of the floor. He does calm everybody down.”
Iowa freshman point guard Joe Toussaint was fairly important himself Saturday with eight assists and two steals. He basically calls himself Connor McCaffery’s student.
“He teaches me a lot, to be honest with you,” Toussaint said. “Even if he’s not talking to me, I just see by example. He’s a great guy to have on the court. He just does all the right things.
“Connor’s just that man. He just knows what to do, how to do it. He never forces anything. He’s never out of control. He’s just a great glue guy for us.”
The Hawkeyes are headed back to the NCAA tourney. It isn’t hard to see them as a tough out against anyone.
“We’re definitely not in yet because it’s not Selection Sunday,” Iowa senior Ryan Kriener said, “but it feels like we’re playing for placement right now.”
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