By Pat Harty
IOWA CITY, Iowa - Less than a week ago, the Iowa men’s basketball team was thought by many to be in serious trouble.
It was 0-3 in the Big Ten and showing signs of being the same emotionally fragile team from last season that lost 14 conference games and performed woefully on defense.
Fans feared a repeat of last season, but fear has since given way to hope and optimism, thanks to back-to-back victories over Northwestern and Nebraska.
Iowa is 13-3 overall and 2-3 in the Big Ten heading into Saturday’s game against Ohio State at Carver-Hawkeye Arena.
The Hawkeyes erased a seven-point deficit in the second half to defeat Northwestern 73-63 on Thursday at the newly renovated Welsh-Ryan Arena in Evanston, Ill., and did so without junior forward Tyler Cook, the team's leading scorer and rebounder.
The 6-foot-9 Cook missed the game due to soreness in his knee, but his teammates picked up the slack in what was an impressive group effort.
From freshman Joe Wieskamp scoring 19 points to Luka Garza making 10-of-11 free throws to Nicholas Baer grabbing 10 rebounds to Isaiah Moss scoring 12 points, grabbing four rebounds and dishing out four assists, Iowa had multiple contributors in the much-needed win that snapped an eight-game road losing streak in the Big Ten.
Junior point guard Jordan Bohannon also scored Iowa’s final six points of the game on back-to-back baskets and two free throws.
He had only scored two points before that closing flurry, but he still directed the offense and didn’t force things.
Bohannon showed patience and poise, but was aggressive when it came to securing the win.
And that’s leadership.
“Really, a tremendous team effort with our best player out,” Iowa coach Fran McCafery said after the game.
Iowa, of course, is better with Cook on the floor, but the players also proved to themselves that they can have success without him if they execute and play as a group.
Fran McCaffery only used eight players against Northwestern, but they all scored at least two points and six finished with at least five points.
McCaffery lit into his players during a timeout early in the second half, and whatever he said, appears to have worked because the momentum shifted to Iowa’s side shortly thereafter.
Iowa started getting most of the loose balls, making defensive stops and hitting key baskets after McCaffery had voiced his displeasure.
McCaffery deserves credit for pushing the right emotional buttons, while his players deserve credit for responding to his challenge.
McCaffery knew with almost 17 minutes remaining in the second half that his players would have time to respond to his emotional outburst, and he was right.
“Plenty of time to recover,” McCaffery said. “So you jump them and you bring them back to reality and what got us the lead in the first half. What are we not doing now? What did we talk about doing for the game plan?
“Just get back to doing what we need to do, and that’s what we did. I couldn’t be more proud of these guys.”
Last year's Iowa team probably would have unraveled under similar circumstances because the players were fragile from an emotional standpoint and because they struggled to defend.
A mini-run by an opponent often turned into a game-changing run last season mostly because Iowa couldn't get defensive stops.
The current team is clearly better on defense compared to last season, but still has a ways to go. Defense is no longer a liability, but is hardly a strength, either.
Junior guard Isaiah Moss continues to evolve as a player and is now showing that he can impact a game in more ways than just scoring. The 6-5 Chicago native is rebounding and defending with more consistency and is avoiding the kind of shooting slumps that plagued him last season.
Depth could be a concern, which is strange to say about a McCaffery-coached team.
Cook's status for Saturday's game is uncertain with him listed as day-to-day.
It was nice to get a win without him, but you also don't want to push your luck.
Iowa needs Cook to be healthy in order to reach its full potential.
Following Saturday’s game against Ohio State, Iowa will play at Penn State next Wednesday before facing Illinois on Jan. 20th at Carver-Hawkeye Arena.
Penn State and Illinois are both struggling and are winnable games.
Iowa has a chance to go on a little run, but it’s dangerous and foolish to look at it that way because the only thing that should matter is the next game.
McCaffery is a master at living in the moment and taking it one game at a time.
He didn’t panic when Iowa was 0-3 in the Big Ten and he certainly won’t get carried away after winning back-to-back games in the Big Ten for the first time since late in the 2016-17 season.
McCaffery will just keep grinding, one game and one practice at a time, while fans and the media will ride on and probably overreact to the emotional roller coaster that is the season.