Iowa Men's Basketball

So far, so very good for Iowa men's basketball

Iowa got everything it could have wanted out of 2-game New York trip

(Brad Penne/USA TODAY Sports)
(Brad Penne/USA TODAY Sports)

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Two days in New York massively altered the perception of the Iowa men’s basketball team.

The Hawkeyes went from being to a nonentity to “Wait, what’s this?” Double-digit wins over Oregon and Connecticut in Madison Square Garden have changed the way we look at this team for now.

It all starts with defense. The Swiss cheese ‘D’ of last season? In New York, the holes were filled. The guards of Oregon and UConn never could get in control of those games. Meanwhile, Iowa’s big men were the best big men in the 2K Empire Classic, at both ends of the floor.

Quick notes as I type this in gray, chilly, bleak Champaign, which most definitely is not midtown Manhattan:

— It’s obvious, but it’s the story of the season to this point. The emergence of Connor McCaffery has changed the way this team plays. Pressed into more minutes than what was expected of him in both New York games because Jordan Bohannon got two first-half fouls in each and because McCaffery simply played very well, the redshirt freshman point guard was as good as you could have wanted.

He played a total of 55 minutes in the Garden, had 26 points (19 against UConn) and six assists, and made 13 of 15 free throws. Those are Bohannon numbers.

McCaffery’s addition illustrates a huge part of Iowa’s problem last year. Bohannon had to carry way too much of a load at point guard. He played admirably under the circumstances, but to ask him to defend, distribute and score from the point for 30-plus minutes a game was asking too much. Rare is the college player who does all three better than adequately.

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— Iowa used nine players Friday against UConn after going with 10 the night before against Oregon. The Hawkeyes used walk-on Riley Till because they had first-half foul trouble against the Ducks. Till acquitted himself very well, by the way.

The nine-man rotation was because forward Cordell Pemsl couldn’t play because of an injury suffered in practice last week. It worked fine. Everyone who’s playing — and it’s funny how things look this way when a team is playing well — seems to know his roles, and the roles seem to fit.

By the way, Pemsl’s return is desired. Frontcourt depth is good with Nicholas Baer and Ryan Kriener coming off the bench, but it isn’t what it once was with Jack Nunge redshirting.

— Senior forward Baer wasn’t himself last season. He broke a finger shortly before the season began, didn’t shoot well, and simply wasn’t the same player who was the Big Ten’s Sixth Man of the Year as a sophomore.

He was a starter for much of last season, and that role doesn’t suit him. Four minutes of high energy at a time is Baer’s deal. Which is what he has produced through four games this season, averaging five fewer minutes per contest than last year, but with increased scoring and rebounding numbers. He’s averaging 5.8 rebounds in 16.3 minutes. That’s a great ratio.

— It’s vividly apparent Iowa lucked out with Luka Garza’s surgery to remove a benign cyst from his abdomen. Meaning, better that it was detected and dealt when it was rather than in-season. And, of course, better that it wasn’t more serious than it was, which was serious enough.

Garza was the tourney MVP in New York. He wasn’t just talk when he said he relished getting the chance to go up against Oregon’s 7-foot-2 Bol Bol, who will probably be a millionaire a year from today. UConn could do little with Garza in the first half when the sophomore scored 18 points and helped stake the Hawkeyes to a 43-27 lead that barely got whittled during the second half.

— Numbers of note: This is the big one. The big, big one. Namely, the Hawkeyes have shot 153 free throws in four games (and made 120, for 78.4 percent to rank 27th in the nation through Friday’s games). Their foes have attempted just 67 foul shots. Only Louisville has attempted more foul shots per game than Iowa.

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That means not only has the team been aggressive, but it’s getting the ball in the right places.

Iowa’s opponents are shooting 40.7 percent from the field, 26.5 from 3-point territory. Those won’t be Big Ten numbers, but for now they’re palate cleansers after the Hawkeyes’ hideous defense of a season ago.

The Hawkeyes have out-rebounded opponents by 8.3 per game. That works.

Iowa is averaging 16.5 turnovers. That doesn’t work. There has to be something to nitpick, right?

— This is a catch-your-breath week for the Hawkeyes. Their only game is at home Wednesday against Alabama State, which is 2-2. The Hornets lost at Iowa last year, 92-58. They opened this season at Iowa State, and lost 79-53.

That will be followed by four straight games (Pittsburgh, Wisconsin, at Michigan State, Iowa State) against Power Five conference teams. We don’t have to wait for January to find out what’s what with this team. But so far, so good. As good as anyone could have hoped.

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