By Pat Harty
IOWA CITY, Iowa - At best, I thought the Iowa men’s basketball team would be on the NCAA Tournament bubble this season, even with a healthy roster.
And then I figured after losing both Jack Nunge and Jordan Bohannon to season-ending injuries in the first semester that making the National Invitation Tournament would be a tall order for this Iowa team.
But now I’m here to say that I was wrong, and that I grossly underestimated the potential of Fran McCaffery’s 10th team at Iowa.
The fact that Iowa is 15-5 overall and 6-3 in the Big Ten heading into the Thursday’s game at Maryland is nothing short of extraordinary under the circumstances.
Two starters are lost for the season, including the program’s all-time leader in 3-point field goal made in Bohannon, and yet, Iowa still is contending for the Big Ten regular-season title, and has won five games in a row.
Iowa also had to replace its leading scorer and rebounder from last season in forward Tyler Cook, who skipped his senior season to enter the NBA Draft. Two-year starting shooting guard Isaiah Moss also transferred to Kansas as a graduate stuident, while super sixth-man Nicholas Baer used up his eligibility last season.
There was so much to question about this Iowa team, especially after Bohannon went down, that it was easy to overlook and under-appreciate its potential.
“There’s some teams that are more talented than others, and some teams are deeper than others, but this team has a resiliency that I think is really impressive,” Fran McCaffery said Monday on a teleconference.”
It doesn’t seem like a reach at this stage to call Iowa a Big Ten contender, considering it’s only one game out of first place in the conference standings, and with the Maryland game being the midway point of the 20-game conference schedule.
Imagine if this depleted squad ends up being the one that finally ends Iowa’s Big Ten regular-season title drought, which dates back to the 1978-79 season. What a story that would be.
There still is plenty of time for Iowa to unravel, which has happened before under Fran McCaffery, but also plenty of time to build on the good things that already have happened.
The next two games will test this Iowa team in different ways, from trying to defeat a talented Maryland squad on the road, and then trying to defend the home-court on Sunday against one of the hottest teams in the conference in Illinois.
The goal, or course, is to win both games, but even a split would keep Iowa in contention.
This probably isn’t McCaffery’s most talented team at Iowa, and it’s definitely not his deepest. But it is arguably his best defensive team at Iowa, and it might be his most resilient and most versatile team at Iowa
Iowa finished the 68-62 victory over Wisconsin this past Monday on a 23-5 scoring run, and it was fueled by defense.
From freshman point guard Joe Toussaint applying pressure at the front of the defense to Garza protecting the rim, the Badgers didn’t have an answer for Iowa’s defense down the stretch.
The 6-foot-11 Garza has gained most of his attention on offense where he leads the Big Ten in scoring and has scored at least 20 points in 14 games, but he also has taken his defense to another level, according to Fran McCaffery.
“I think Luka Garza’s defense this year is not something that anybody talks about, but it’s very good,” McCaffery said. “It’s become a critical part of his game.”
If you were to list the biggest reasons for Iowa’s success this season, Garza’s emergence as a double-double machine would be at the top, or near the top of the list, along with the improvement on defense.
Iowa’s 93-78 loss to DePaul on Nov. 11 at Carver-Hawkeye Arena in the second game of the season, and its 103-91 loss at Michigan on Dec. 6th now appear to be flukes, or outliers, or whatever you want to call two bad performances in 20 games.
Iowa won the first meeting against Maryland this season 67-49 on Jan. 10 at Carver-Hawkeye Arena. The Terrapins only shot 32.7 percent from the field and Iowa also had a 44-32 advantage in rebounding.
Toussaint’s impact at point guard has also been a key factor; along with C.J. Fredrick’s performance at shooting guard.
Fredrick still has a long way to go to match Bohannon as a clutch shooter, but Fredrick has shown signs of having that unique ability. Fredrick, at 6-3, is also taller than Bohannon, and more athletic.
Sophomore Joe Wieskamp also deserves credit for figuring out how to excel on a team that is now built around its emerging star at center.
Wieskamp tested the NBA waters last season, while Garza didn’t. But now it is Garza’s team in so many ways, but the 6-6 Wieskamp still is a key piece to the puzzle.
Iowa mostly uses eight players, with 6-5 sophomore guard Connor McCaffery the fifth starter, and with 6-9 senior forward Ryan Kriener, 6-2 graduate transfer guard Bakari Evelyn and 6-8 junior forward Cordell Pemsl all coming off the bench.
Each of the eight players knows his role and knows that he will have a significant role in every game just out necessity.
The players have more time to find a rhythm and they’re not looking over their shoulder when they miss a shot, although, Fran McCaffery never has had a quick hook in that regard.
And as long as the top eight players stay healthy, Fran McCaffery could have something special brewing in year 10.
The fans have certainly taken notice as it was announced on Wednesday that’s Iowa next two home games against Illinois on Sunday and against Nebraska on Saturday Dec. 8th are both sold out.
“I’ve been impressed with our crowds even though they haven’t been full,” Fran McCaffery said. ‘The circumstances as we discussed the other night were fairly unique with regard to weather and being midweek and so forth.
“Our fans have typically responded extremely well in any weekend game that we’ve had in the Big Ten, pretty much since I got there. And so, I’m thankful that it’s somewhat of a reflection of their appreciation of this team. But our fans have always responded well when the have an opportunity to get here, if the weather is okay.”
Iowa vs. Maryland
When: Thursday, 7:30 p.m.
Where: Xfinity Center, College Park, Md.
TV: Big Ten Network
Records/rankings: Iowa is 15-5 overall, 6-3 in the Big Ten and ranked 18th in the Associated Press poll; Maryland is 16-4, 6-3 and ranked 15th in the AP poll.
All-time series: Thursday will be the 11th meeting between Iowa and Maryland. The Terrapins own a 6-4 edge in the series. Iowa won this season’s earlier meeting, 67-49, on Jan. 10, in Iowa City. Thursday will be Iowa’s first visit to College Park, Maryland, since Jan. 7, 2018. Maryland owns a 2-1 advantage against Iowa in games played at the Xfinity Center. The Terrapins recorded wins over Iowa in 2016 (74-68) and 2018 (91-73), while the Hawkeyes beat Maryland in 2017 (83-69).