Iowa basketball: Hoop Hawkeyes' strong start to 2016
And now, probably the easiest question of the day in college basketball. Who is the team of last week?
The Rose Bowl might not have gone well for Iowa, but just look what the hoop Hawkeyes have been up to.
Tuesday: Iowa 83, No. 1 Michigan State 70. OK, the Spartans were short one Denzel Valentine, but still. It was a whipping. So much for Michigan State’s perfect record.
Saturday: Iowa 70, No. 14 Purdue 63. Never mind that 17-point Boilermakers’ halftime lead at home. A mirage. So much for their 13-1 record, or 15-game Mackey Arena winning streak.
Now the Hawkeyes are 11-3 and 2-0 against a couple of the Big Ten’s most fearsome brutes, so what does that say about them?
``I think it says we’re in a good place. It says we can fight, and compete,’’ coach Fran McCaffery added. ``But we’ve still got 16 more.’’
Since this has been one of the most impressive weeks of the season so far in college basketball, here is what we should know about Iowa.
The Hawkeyes have been around the block. Four seniors and a junior start, with a combined 507 games played among them. ``We know what big games are,’’ senior guard Anthony Clemmons said.
``This team,’’ McCaffery said, ``has a very mature approach to the journey.’’
The Hawkeyes are smart. Guard Mike Gesell earned a finance degree in three years, and an invitation to Beta Gamma Sigma honor society for business students. Forward and leading scorer Jarrod Uthoff is a graduate in economics. Three-fifths of the starting lineup – 7-1 Adam Woodbury to go with Gesell and Uthoff – were 2015 Academic All-Big Ten.
But then, McCaffery is the right guy to coach brains. He has an Ivy League economics degree from Penn.
``The thing you have to remember when you have smart guys on your team, you have to say things that make sense to them,’’ McCaffery said. ``If you’re being critical, it has to make sense. If you’re praising them, it has to make sense, and that’s how I try to coach.
``It’s not, `OK, I’m just going to go yell today and try to toughen them up.’ These guys are tough enough. They don’t need me to toughen them up. They need me to teach them and coach them and help them grow, so that when they’re in this environment, they know how to play loose.’’
The Hawkeyes are solid. They are averaging 10.6 turnovers a game, which would be the lowest for Iowa since turnovers became an official statistic in 1980. A key particular of the Purdue conquest was a 22-7 gap in points off turnovers.
That’s how a program can win nine of its last 13 true road games. That’s how a team can be down 19 in the first half, with a Purdue packed house screaming for more, and not blink.
``What typically happens is they don’t panic,’’ McCaffery said ``If you’re down 19 on the road, you know what can happen. You can lose your confidence, you can point fingers, you can quit shooting the ball. What they did was they believed in themselves and believed in each other. Experience doesn’t panic. They keep coming.’’
Added reserve forward Nicholas Baer of Saturday’s rally, ``This was a testament to the character of our program.’’
The Hawkeyes are hardened by adversity. Three losses by a combined 12 points to Dayton, Notre Dame and Iowa State – all ranked at the time, or nearly so -- were an ordeal early in the season, but also an education. The 83-82 Iowa State defeat in Ames was particularly galling, in that Iowa blew a 20-point lead against the then-No. 2 Cyclones.
Marquette and Wichita State were included on the docket. It was an arduous schedule, by design.
``When you have four seniors and a junior starting, that’s what you should do, in my opinion,’’ McCaffery said. ``All of that prepares you for what we know the 18 (Big Ten) games are. Every night is a monster.’’
They have done all this without remarkable individual numbers. Uthoff is at 18.1, and junior Peter Jok the only other double-figure average at 13.5. But as a team, Iowa scores 81.7 points a game.
The Hawkeyes even have their own Cinderella story. Walk-on redshirt freshman Baer, a home state 6-7 kid from Bettendorf with the build of an Iowa corn stalk, has turned into a force off the bench. He scored in double figures three games in a row before the Purdue trip – including 11 against Michigan State. He had only seven against the Boilermakers, but all of them were in the second half when the Hawkeyes were making their run, and he was 3-for-3 from the field with four rebounds.
``A lot of people want to just say he’s a great story, he’s a great hustle guy,’’ McCaffery said. ``He hustles. That’s one component of how complete his game is . . . but he’s a really good player.’’
Senior savvy, sound play, a busload of experience, and now two Big Ten prize catches on the wall. Keep an eye on Iowa.