By Pat Harty
IOWA CITY, Iowa – Nice job if you had the Iowa men’s basketball team winning a game at the Las Vegas Invitational over the Thanksgiving holiday because I sure didn’t.
I had the odds at slim to none that Iowa would leave the desert with a victory in the four-team event.
But then came the 72-61 upset over Texas Tech on Thanksgiving followed by a decent performance in a 83-73 loss to San Diego State on Friday.
The two-game split is a positive sign for an Iowa team that had performed woefully during a 93-78 loss to DePaul on Nov. 11 at Carver-Hawkeye Arena.
Iowa’s other four victories have come against overmatched opponents that it should have defeated, so the DePaul game was the only real test until playing in Las Vegas.
And now comes another real test on the other side of the country as Iowa (5-2) will play Syracuse (4-3) on Tuesday at the Carrier Dome in Syracuse, N.Y.
The game is part of the Big Ten/ACC Challenge and will be televised by ESPN2.
“It’s a situation where we’ve got to be ready to compete,” Iowa coach Fran McCaffery said Monday on a teleconference. “I thought we competed well in Las Vegas and you need the same effort against Syracuse in the Carrier Dome.
“You know what you’re facing. You know what the tradition is there. They’ve got some really good talent. They’ve got some good young players. It’s a great opportunity for us.”
Tuesday’s game is part of a grueling seven-game stretch in which Iowa only plays one game at home.
The Iowa players and coaches returned from Las Vegas at about 2 a.m. this past Saturday, according to McCaffery, and they were scheduled to leave for Syracuse at 2 p.m. on Monday.
There will be little time to recover after the Syracuse game as Iowa will travel to Michigan late Thursday afternoon to face the surging Wolverines in Friday’s Big Ten opener in Ann Arbor, Mich.
“Obviously, we’ve said from the beginning, this is a difficult stretch for us, but that’s what the game is,” McCaffery said.
A while the schedule poses a huge challenge, it’s not a hot topic with the players and coaches.
“It’s not something that we even talk about, to be honest with you,” McCaffery said. “It’s just next game on the schedule. How do we plan practice? How much film do we watch? How long do we stay on the floor? When are we leaving? And just kind to take a professional approach to it.”
There is always a level of expectation at Syracuse, thanks to the near half-century of success that has occurred under 75-year old head coach Jim Boeheim.
The Orange have made 33 NCAA Tournament appearances under Boeheim, including winning a national title in 2003, while also advancing to five Final Fours.
Syracuse is one of the true giants in men’s college basketball, but the current team is coming off back-to-back double-digit losses to Oklahoma State and Penn State in the NIT Season Tipoff event, and returned just one starter from last season’s team that lost to Baylor in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.
It will certainly be a tall order, but Iowa has what it takes to defeat this Syracuse team, especially if its 3-point shots are falling.
Iowa also has a head coach in McCaffery who is familiar with the Carrier Dome after having coached there many times before in previous jobs, and who is also familiar with Boeheim, both on and off the court where they have helped to raise money for Coaches vs. Cancer.
“I have a lot of respect for him,” McCaffery said. “He’s really different than I think a lot of people think he is. He’s easy going. He’s got a great sense of humor. I just have a lot of respect for him and I recognize the challenge for us.”
Perhaps the biggest challenge in facing Syracuse is figuring out how to attack Boeheim’s highly effective two-three zone defense.
McCaffery was asked on Monday’s teleconference what makes Syracuse’s zone so hard to score against.
“They’re really good at it because the players that he recruits fit that style, both offensively and defensively,” McCaffery said. “They play it all the time and they have really good chemistry with each other.”
Oklahoma State and Penn State both showed this past weekend how to attack Syracuse’s zone defense, winning by scores of 86-62 and 85-64, respectively.
Iowa has one of the nation’s top zone busters in senior guard Jordan Bohannon, who is expected to play against Syracuse in what would be his seventh appearance this season.
Bohannon is deciding whether to redshirt or play this entire season after having hip surgery in late May.
He can appear in 10 games in the first semester without exhausting his eligibility for next season.
Bohannon was hot and cold in Las Vegas, scoring 20 points in the victory over Texas Tech, but just three points in the loss to San Diego State. He also attempted only three shots against San Diego State, but he wasn’t solely to blame for that according to McCaffery.
“I think we’ve got to do a better job screening for him,” McCaffery said. “We’ve got to do a better job of getting him more shots.”
Junior center Luka Garza and redshirt freshman guard C.J. Fredrick both made the all-tournament team at the Las Vegas invitational.
The 6-foot-11 Garza leads the Big Ten in scoring with a 19.6 per-game average and ranks second in the conference with four double-doubles.
Iowa vs. Syracuse
When: Tuesday, 6 p.m.
Where: Carrier Dome, Syracuse, N.Y.