Happy Monday morning! Everyone’s day off to a good start? You get a good breakfast in? They say it’s the most important meal of the day. I’m certainly treating it that way. You know what I had this morning? A nice, big bowl of crow. And boy was it delicious!
A week ago, I greeted you all with a bit of a pessimistic view. It was quite warranted given the circumstances. Last Monday, Hawkeye fans were waking up to a basketball team that was teetering on the .500 mark whoq had just rattled off three conference losses in a single week to start the Big Ten season 0-5 for the first time since Fran’s first year as head coach.
What’s worse, only Fran seemed to care about the abysmal performances. He was catching heat from both local and national media after being tossed from the game at Maryland the night before. His players continued to largely play lifelessly, half expecting to walk to victory and half not caring if they didn’t.
Like the rest of you, I had written off the season and was struggling to find another win on the schedule. The conference was down, but it didn’t seem to be as down as the Hawkeyes. The two best bets for wins, Illinois and Rutgers, were both road games. Rutgers had already knocked off a top 15 team in Seton Hallat home and were fresh off a victory over Wisconsin. This looked like the worst season since that 2010-2011 year of Fran’s introduction.
This morning, things look different. And I’m here to enjoy my crow with you all. I know, I know, it’s one win against a not good opponent who has yet to win a Big Ten game, but it’s better than the alternative. And believe me, the alternative certainly looked like a possibility in Champaign.
For the first 20 minutes last Thursday, things looked largely unchanged. Illinois was getting basically whatever they wanted offensively. Iowa we beat off the dribble, their rotations were slow or non-existent and uncontested shots were falling. The result? Another 20-point deficit in the first half.
At that point, I was ready to give up on yet another Iowa basketball game. We’ve seen this movie before. Of course, the Hawkeyes will make an early push in the second half. They may even cut this thing to single digits and give us all some false hope of a competitive finish. All this only to go back to giving up wide open looks from 3, let guards penetrate to the hoop with little resistance, and don’t forget that inevitable 5+ minute scoring drought. Sure, the final score might be slightly closer than the 13-point halftime deficit, but the game would never be in question and there would never be true hope of a comeback.
Boy was I wrong. With that meek outlook, I wasn’t as impressed as you might expect to see the Hawkeyes come out of the halftime break playing with their hair on fire. The 10-0 run to start the half was basically what I expected and in line with what we’ve seen in all the Big Ten games by this team.
To my surprise, the run didn’t stop there, it wasn’t countered with an Illini run of their own. Instead, for the first time this year I saw some real fight from the young Hawkeyes. Illinois did their part to nix the comeback. They played some incredibly aggressive defense, hanging all over Iowa’s guards. It was a wise strategy given the turnover problems and the narrative surrounding a lack of ballhanders for the Hawkeyes.
Luka Garza imposed his will for @IowaHoops tonight, and the Hawkeyes overcame a 20-point first half deficit and regulation Illini buzzer-beater to force OT.— Big Ten Network (@BigTenNetwork) January 12, 2018
FINAL: Iowa 104, Illinois 97. pic.twitter.com/sM49Cvd4f4
And while the pressure did pay off with 17 turnovers from the Hawkeyes, it was handled about as well as I’ve seen by Iowa this year. In the face of much criticism, Jordan Bohannon responded with 29 points. That pressure also resulted in a slew of fouls by the Illini. Thus far in the season, fouling the Hawkeyes seemed like a good idea as they were near the bottom of the conference in free throw percentage, shooting worse than 67% from the charity stripe. But on Thursday they made the Illini pay for their overly aggressive defensive style, getting into the bonus early and knocking down 33-40 free throws. It helped carry them through what has typically been long scoring droughts and it kept them in a game that has typically gotten away from them.
Even more surprising and impactful than the free throw shooting and the sharpshooting of Bohannon was the team defense. This team has shown glimpses of being able to play quality defense for stretches of previous games. This game was difference. Against the Illini, Iowa actually sustained their defensive intensity for the entire second half and into overtime.
The effort was helped by throwing out a new zone (the commentators referred to it as a 1-3-1, but it was more of a hybrid 2-3/3-2 matchup zone in my opinion). What’s more, Fran stuck with the new defense when he saw it was working. A common criticism to that point had been commonly mixing up defenses for the sake of mixing them up, but pulling them off even if they were effective. No such criticism for Thursday’s contest.
Fran stuck with the defense that was working and the players never let up their intensity. Even as Illinois managed some easy buckets on occasion and worked to pull away again, the Hawkeyes kept fighting. It was so refreshing to see. I found myself saying midway through the second half that even when they would inevitably lose, this one felt different - I was genuinely proud of the heart the team was showing.
So when they finally fought all the way back to take a lead, I found myself with a confidence I haven’t had in this team since before the Cayman Islands. It wasn’t so much that I knew they would win, but that I knew the could win. That’s been missing and it’s so damn nice to have back.
At the end of the day, there are still a lot of question marks with this team. Iowa is still dead last in the conference in scoring defense and things aren’t getting any easier on the schedule front. It was one game against an opponent that now supplants the Hawkeyes at the bottom of the conference.
But sometimes all it takes is one game. One win. One spark to light a fire under this team and propel them to a salvageable season. I don’t expect any sort of a post-season push. Nobody should. But this is still a young team. They’ll all be back next season with the exception of Uhl and anyone who chooses to transfer (there will almost certainly be one or two). Having this group learn how to win without Peter Jok in the Big Ten conference and on the road is a step in the right direction.
We also saw Fran do some things we haven’t seen much of lately. He stuck with a defensive twist that had been effective. He also found a lineup that was working and stuck with it, shortening his rotation in the second half and increasing minutes for some key players down the stretch.
We saw guys like Ryan Kriener make their biggest impact of the season. Isaiah Moss was cold from outside, but found a way to contribute. Tyler Cook continued to build on a sophomore campaign that should have Hawkeye fans excited. And freshman Luka Garza had arguably his best game yet, coming through with some big time plays and clutch free throws against a Big Ten opponent that’s unquestionably better than the mid-majors Garza had feasted on to this point.
There is no chance this team rattles off the nine or so more wins they would need to actually have a shot at clawing their way back into the NCAA Tournament fringe. But what we saw Thursday tells me there’s a chance this group of youngsters has what it takes to make a push next year. They showed passion and fire and fury and intensity. They looked ready to be mad again.
Happy Monday everyone, and Skol Vikings!