By Pat Harty
IOWA CITY, Iowa - If you thought the Iowa men’s basketball team struggled last season, then what about Pittsburgh?
The Panthers finished winless (0-18) in the Atlantic Coast Conference, and that led to the dismissal of Kevin Stallings as head coach after just two miserable seasons.
Former Duke player and assistant coach Jeff Capel, who also was the head coach at Oklahoma and Virginia Commonwealth, was hired to replace Stallings, and the results have been encouraging so far.
The new-look Panthers are 6-0 heading into Tuesday’s Big Ten/ACC Challenge matchup against 5-0 and 14th-ranked Iowa at Carver-Hawkeye Arena, and are coming off a 75-73 victory over St. Louis, which was picked to win the Atlantic 10 Conference in the A-10 coaches and media voting.
“I really like their team” Iowa coach Fran McCaffery said of Pittsburgh. “They play together. They play hard. They defend. And they’re organized. They run good stuff.
“They’ve got a good blend of some really good young players and a couple veteran returnees, a couple transfers. They’ve all blended pretty well together and that’s why they’re 6-0.”
Five of Pittsburgh’s first six games were played at home and the other game was played on a neutral court, so Tuesday’s game, which tips off at 8:05 p.m. and will be televised by ESPNU, will be the first real road test for the Panthers.
And it comes against an Iowa team that Iowa has experienced its own resurgence, winning its first five games, including two signature victories over then-No. 13 Oregon and Connecticut in the 2K Empire Classic at Madison Square Garden in New York City.
Pittsburgh has four players who average in double figures in scoring, led by Xavier’s Johnson’s 16.7 per-game average, and three freshmen in the starting lineup.
Iowa also has four players who average in double figures in scoring, led by sophomore center Luka Garza’s 16.2 per-game average.
But it’s on the other end of the court where Iowa has shown the most improvement this season.
A team that defended woefully throughout last season is now making it difficult for opponents to score despite having mostly the same players from last season.
The addition of freshman forward Joe Wieskamp and redshirt freshman point guard Connor McCaffery certainly has helped the cause on defense, but an emphasis on defense during the offseason also seems to be paying dividends.
“I think we’ve got some additional pieces and we’re a year older,” Fran McCaffery said when asked why his team is defending at a higher level despite having mostly the same players from last season. “Sometimes, it takes a little longer to figure it out, and we’ve drilled it, we’ve spent time on it.
“And I think what you have is a group that is committed to one another to get better in an area that we weren’t good at last year.”
It truly is amazing how quickly Iowa has climbed the ladder of respect, from postseason long shot to suddenly a ranked contender.
However, the next four games should give a much better indication of Iowa's potential.
Following the Pittsburgh game, Iowa will host Wisconsin in the Big Ten opener on Friday before traveling to Michigan State on Dec. 3 and then returning home to face Iowa State on Dec. 6.
"We have an intense stretch coming up," Fran McCaffery said. "The focus is on the next game in terms of scouting, but (the time off) gave us a little time to work on things we want to do.
"You give (the players) an opportunity to have rest (during that time) because the stretch that is coming up is going to be an intense couple of weeks."
A loss against Pittsburgh wouldn’t destroy Iowa's new image, but it would cause damage and make some wonder if the success in New York was a miracle or an aberration, or whatever you want to call something that wasn’t expected to happen.
It’s the same situation with Pittsburgh, whose early success is considered even more suspect than Iowa’s if you consider that Pittsburgh still isn’t ranked.
Iowa and Pittsburgh were matched together for a reason in that not much was expected from either team.
Iowa needs to win as many games as possible outside of the conference because the new 20-game conference grind will be challenging and unrelenting.
A loss to the Panthers could prove costly down the line for an Iowa team that has failed to make the NCAA Tournament in each of the past two seasons.
Iowa vs. Pittsburgh
When: 8:05 p.m., Tuesday
Where: Carver-Hawkeye Arena
Series: Tuesday will be the eighth overall meeting between Pittsburgh and Iowa and first since 1976. Pittsburgh owns a 5-2 advantage over Iowa in the all-time series, having won the first five meetings in games played from 1928-35. The Hawkeyes won the last two meetings in 1950 in Pittsburgh and 1976 in Albuquerque, New Mexico.
Iowa in the Challenge: Iowa is 5-12 in ACC/Big Ten Challenge games, notching four of its five Challenge wins at home (Georgia Tech, NC State, Florida State, Notre Dame). Tuesday is Iowa’s first home Challenge game since a 78-75 win over Florida State in 2015. The Hawkeyes lost at Notre Dame (2016) and Virginia Tech (2017) the last two seasons.