IOWA CITY — Someone was 14-19 last season. Someone is 14-3 this season.
Is it the same team? Yes. And no.
We’re talking about the Iowa men’s basketball squad, which will keep its national ranking for a ninth-straight week after defeating Ohio State 72-62 Saturday afternoon at Carver-Hawkeye Arena.
It’s way too soon to proclaim the Hawkeyes anything other than improved from last year’s model, but they are quite improved from last year’s model. Last year’s model had all the offense a team should need, but not nearly enough to make up for a broken defense.
This year’s team just finished off three Big Ten wins in seven days by holding Nebraska, Northwestern and Ohio State (two of whom were ranked) to a combined 40.9 percent from the field.
Northwestern forward Dererk Pardon had scored in double-figures in every game this season until Iowa held him to six points Wednesday in Evanston. Saturday, OSU forward Kaleb Wesson brought a 17.1-point average. He scored two.
“Pardon and Wesson, we emphasized denying them the ball,” Iowa junior center Ryan Kriener said.
That’s the same kind of thing the Hawkeyes’ coaches would have stressed a year ago, but without seeing results. Last season, Ohio State shot 53.0 and 52.7 percent in double-digit wins over Iowa. Saturday? Try 37.3.
“I just think it’s having older guys, probably another year in Fran’s system,” said Buckeyes Coach Chris Holtmann.
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“They’ve always had length and size, but they’re a little bit bigger and longer right now than they’ve been.”
McCaffery noted OSU no longer has last season’s Big Ten Player of the Year, Keita Bates-Diop. “But as far as it relates to us,” he said, “we’re deeper, we’re smarter, we’re better defensively. You would expect that.”
Would you? Minds in Hawkeye Fan Land had last season’s bad defense burned into them. Poor defensive performances at Michigan State and Purdue made same-old, same-old seem like the easy narrative to cite.
However, this season’s Hawkeyes have been good defenders the majority of the time. They were especially good the last two games.
Asked if Iowa would have come out swinging last season after halftime following a 24-point first-half slog like Saturday’s, junior guard Jordan Bohannon said “No. Nope. No explanation needed.” Then he offered one.
“This summer and this fall, the preseason, we worked our tails off to get to this point,” Bohannon said. “It wasn’t fun last year. It was one of the most miserable years I think Iowa basketball has had in quite a while, knowing the talent we had and what we were capable of doing.
“I’m not saying we didn’t work hard, but something just wasn’t clicking. This year it’s starting to click. We have guys starting to read each other. We have guys that are reading the next play. We’re in passing lanes, we’re getting steals, we’re getting that transition going. That’s something we didn’t have last year.”
Post player Luka Garza helped silence Wesson and was one of four Hawkeyes who blocked Buckeye shots.
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“Everyone on this team knows now that to win in this league you’ve got to play defense and you’ve got to get stops,” Garza said. “We’re a running team, so we need to get stops to run. That’s when we’re at our best.”
McCaffery said the defensive improvement is largely from players getting older and wiser.
“Sometimes you’ve got to go through it, get your ears pinned back,” he said, “figure out exactly why a particular thing is really important.”
“We’d hear it every day when you’re walking the streets, when you’re getting on your phone,” Bohannon said. “Everywhere you go, ‘What a crappy season it was.’ That gave us a lot of motivation.”
There are, of course, 14 regular-season games left. “The thing about this league, you’ve got to keep doing it,” McCaffery said.
Yes, yes. But getting to 14 wins on Jan. 12 instead of Feb. 28 is worthy of briefly pausing to enjoy.
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