By Pat Harty
IOWA CITY, Iowa – Two of the Big Ten’s most disappointing men’s basketball teams will meet on Tuesday when Iowa faces Minnesota at Carver-Hawkeye Arena.
The winner will gain some much-needed momentum, while the loser will continue to sink to depths that were unimaginable heading into the season.
With almost all of its key players returning from a 24-win team, Minnesota under head coach Richard Pitino was considered a legitimate contender for a Big Ten title when the season started.
But the combination of injuries, inconsistency and the suspension of senior center Reggie Lynch has turned a once-promising season into a nightmare.
The Gophers are just 3-7 in the Big Ten and 14-9 overall heading into Tuesday’s game, which starts at 8:07 p.m. and will be televised by the Big Ten Network.
Iowa is 2-8 in the conference and 11-12 overall and already has lost four Big Ten games at home.
The Hawkeyes have struggled in multiple areas, but poor defense has been arguably the biggest problem and it seems to be getting worse based on this past Saturday’s 98-84 loss at Nebraska.
It marked the fourth time this season that Iowa has allowed a Big Ten opponent to score at least 90 points.
“We know that we’re capable of doing it,” sophomore point guard Jordan Bohannon said of playing effective defense. “It’s just the fact that we have to put it together.
“Obviously, our offensive numbers are there. It just boils down to the defensive end. That’s what it comes down to in Big Ten play.”
Minnesota still is dangerous even without Lynch patrolling the paint.
Senior Nate Mason is one of the Big Ten’s most experienced guards and containing him will be a top priority for the Hawkeyes.
“He's playing really well,” Iowa coach Fran McCaffery said of the 6-foot-2 Mason. “He's explosive. Not a lot of guys can come at you 100 miles an hour and shoot a pull-up three and then go either way. Some guys are right-handed drivers. Some guys only go left. He goes equally well both ways. He's got a pull-up game. He's a veteran. He's been around; playing as well as anybody in our league right now.”
Bohannon has struggled on defense this season, but he isn’t alone. None of the Iowa players have performed particularly well on defense.
What makes Bohannon so valuable is his shooting ability. He made six 3-point baskets in the loss to Nebraska and has made at least five 3-pointers in each of the past four Big Ten road games despite facing defenses that were designed to stop him.
Bohannon also has made 26 consecutive free throws and is inching closer to Chris Street’s school record of 34 makes in a row.
“It's amazing because you can tell that teams have marked him, and they're trying not to let him do that,” McCaffery said of Bohannon. “The thing that's impressed me, he's got the green light, but he doesn't really hunt shots. He's not selfish at all. He waits and lets it come to him. He moves it. Seven assists, no turns the other night. To me that was as impressive as the six threes he made because they came after him, and I never gave him a rest, and they rotated three guys on him in both halves, and it didn't seem to bother him. So it says a lot about how tough he is.”
As for his team’s defensive woes, McCaffery doesn’t have a quick fix or a miracle cure.
Nebraska made 11 3-point baskets during Saturday’s victory in Lincoln, Neb.
“There's only certain ways to defend certain action,” McCaffery said. “You can have a ball screen action, you can switch it, you can ice it, you can trap it, or you can play it traditionally. Then you're dealing with pick-and-roll, roll replace, is there somebody low, whether it's going to be replace, or where they have everybody spaced. You're going to help from the two-man side and rotate. So there's no other way to do it. So you can play zone, you can press more, you can play zone more, you can jump it up, you can play triangle-and-two, box-and-one, that kind of stuff.”
McCaffery said the quality of the opponent also has impacted Iowa’s defensive performance.
“Stuff doesn't work in our league,” McCaffery said. “There's too many good players. Nobody has a team where there's only two good players on it. Everybody has got a team with nine or ten of them. So you don't really do that. So we'll continue to mix defenses and try to get better with our recognition. Our recognition has not been good this year. It's not. Our execution of defending certain action, I mean, they're close. They're this close.
“But if you don't get there and they make a three, okay, it doesn't matter that you're really working and you're trying to get it. You didn't get there, and they made a three. We gave them 11 threes the other night, and you can't do that. So when you've got guys that are really trying, they're really concentrating, they're watching film and they're trying to get better.”
Sticking with Moss: Sophomore shooting guard Isaiah Moss has lost his shooting touch, but still has trust from his head coach.
McCaffery told reporters on Monday that he still believes in Moss and wants to stay positive.
"First and foremost, you've got to stick with him," McCaffery said of Moss, who only scored two points in the loss at Nebraska. "I don't want to bury him, take him out of the lineup and keep encouraging him to be aggressive at both ends.
"I think that's going to be the only way we'll get him out of what he's in right now is to make sure that he knows we haven't given up on him and we have confidence in him and we want him to keep going. We're not trying to pull him back. No, we're trying to get him to go the other way."
Injury report: McCaffery said sophomore forward Ryan Kriener could see action against Minnesota on Tuesday after missing the last two games in concussion protocol.
However, McCaffery's update on junior guard Brady Ellingson, who is also in concussion protocol, wasn't as optimistic.
"I don't think Brady, but it hasn't been finalized yet," McCaffery said. "But Kriener has passed his test, but he is still in concussion protocol. You have got to be a certain amount of time from having a headache. He's close."
Iowa vs. Minnesota
When: 8:07 p.m., Tuesday
Where: Carver-Hawkeye Arena
TV: Big Ten Network
Tickets: Tickets are available for $25 for adults, and $10 for youth and UI students.
All-time series records: Minnesota holds a 104-94 advantage in the series that began with a 47-10 Gopher win in 1902. The 198 meetings are the most Iowa has played against any opponent.
Iowa has won six of the last 10 meetings. The two teams have split the last 12 contests and have traded victories in the last six meetings, dating back to 2014. The Gophers won last season's only meeting in double overtime (101-89) on Feb. 8, 2017, in Minneapolis.
Iowa holds a 56-41 advantage in games played in Iowa City and a 21-10 advantage at Carver-Hawkeye Arena. Iowa has won 11 of the last 16 meetings in Iowa City, including four of the last five.