By Pat Harty
IOWA CITY, Iowa - There are times when being wrong feels right if that makes any sense.
I’m happy to say that I underestimated the Iowa men’s basketball team heading into the season by thinking it would win eight games in Big Ten play at the most.
A victory over Northwestern on Sunday would give Iowa eight victories in conference play with seven conference games still remaining.
The 20th-ranked Hawkeyes defeated Indiana 77-72 on Thursday in Bloomington, Ind., improving to 18-5 overall and 7-5 in the Big Ten.
Iowa is also 3-3 in Big Ten road games and 7-2 against Big Ten opponents since starting 0-3 in conference play.
Those are impressive numbers under almost any circumstance, but especially for a program that finished 4-14 in the Big Ten and 14-19 overall last season.
Iowa’s resurgence has been swift and spectacular, and something I didn’t see coming, given how poorly Iowa performed on defense last season, allowing nearly 80 points per game.
I figured that Iowa would be better than last season, but that hardly was going out on a limb because Iowa wasn’t even competitive in nearly half of its Big Ten games last season.
Last year’s team would usually unravel at the first sign of trouble, whereas the current team is resilient and composed.
Indiana made several runs late in Thursday’s game, and yet, Iowa withstood all of them, thanks largely to the dead-eye shooting of junior point guard Jordan Bohannon, who made five 3-point baskets and scored Iowa’s final 11 points.
It was the kind of circumstance in which last year’s team probably would have buckled under the pressure in a hostile environment.
But as Thursday's game showed, this is a different Iowa team and a different season.
“I think it’s maturity and understanding the necessity of following a game plan on the road against a really explosive team,” Iowa coach Fran McCaffery said when asked after Thursday’s game about what kept Iowa from buckling.
Iowa flirted with a win at Indiana last season, but fell apart down the stretch and lost 77-64 in the first conference road game.
“They had a run in the first half, they had a run in the second half, difference in the game,” McCaffery said.
The difference in Thursday’s game is that Iowa had enough players rise to the occasion. Not all of the starters played well as center Luka Garza only scored four points while being plagued by foul problems, and junior guard Isaiah Moss was held scoreless for the second consecutive game.
So for Iowa to have won a Big Ten road game with two starters combining for just four points says a lot about this team’s character, talent and resolve.
Junior forward Tyler Cook had a huge impact in Thursday’s victory with 21 points, seven rebounds and four assists. The St. Louis native was patient and persistent at the same time.
And he was unselfish.
I’ll admit that before the season I wondered if Cook’s desire to play in the NBA would conflict with what Iowa wanted to accomplish on a game-by-game basis.
He sometimes tries to force the issue and plays too much on the perimeter. But for the most part, the 6-foot-9, 250-pound Cook has operated within the framework of the offense, has been a willing distributor and a force near the basket.
Cook is living in the moment more than thinking of the future, and that’s significant in building team chemistry on and off the court.
“He’s playing the game at his pace right now, but he’s also really quick and really powerful,” McCaffery said. “It’s a lethal combination.
“Sometimes, he gets into trouble when he goes to fast. But tonight, he used his quickness and he played at his pace and he does a great job of recognizing when the double team comes and when it doesn’t, and what he’s got to do when it comes. He’s a willing passer. So that’s what makes it easy for us to run our offense through him.”
Another key to Iowa’s turnaround, of course, has been the addition of 6-6 freshman Joe Wieskamp. The Muscatine native scored 13 points in Thursday’s game, including 12 in the first half on four 3-point baskets.
Wieskamp has scored in double figures in 15 games, including in seven of the last nine games, and has grabbed at least seven rebounds in eight games. He also brings a toughness to defense, and this team so desperately needed that after what happened last season.
Iowa should be favored in at least five of its final eight games, the exceptions being at Ohio State, at Wisconsin and maybe at Nebraska in the regular-season finale, but the Cornhuskers are struggling.
McCaffery was asked about the significance of winning at Indiana and he gave the perfect answer by saying it just makes the next game bigger.
The victory also moved the 59-year old McCaffery ahead of Lute Olson into second place on Iowa's all-time wins list with 169 victories.
I thought McCaffery had a chance to pass Olson this season, but didn't think it would happen in the 23rd game of the season.
Iowa is poised to make the NCAA Tournament after failing to do so in each of the past two seasons, and that clearly exceeds my expectations for this team.
There still is work to do, but Iowa is now playing for a higher seed in the Big Dance barring a late-season collapse.
The Hawkeyes have collapsed before under McCaffery, but this season just feel different because the team has so much experience and multiple scorers and shooters.
It also values defense and the players all seem to have a mutual respect and admiration for each other.
So in other words, the current Iowa team is way better than I expected.