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Overreaction Monday: Iowa Basketball Hits Inflection Point

Little more than a week ago, the Hawkeyes looked to be in trouble. Now? They look to be playing for an NCAA Tournament seed.

NCAA Basketball: Ohio State at Iowa
Ryan Kriener and the Hawkeyes are coming for you.
Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports

My, how things can change in a matter of a week. Well, technically, it’s been a bit longer than a week I suppose. I assume at least some of you had stepped away from the ledge by this time a week ago thanks to the defeat of then ranked Nebraska. Maybe not.

Coming out of Iowa’s trip to West Lafeyette ten days ago, the situation looked dire. The Hawkeyes struggled mightily with a.... not great Bryant team in Carver-Hawkeye. Then they looked a lot like the 2017-2018 version against the Boilermakers.

In last week’s rendition of Overreaction Monday, I noted the defeat of Nebraska gave some hope this season could be salvaged. Today, Iowa’s coming off three straight wins, including a pair of wins against ranked opponents in Iowa City and their first conference road win since a 104-97 win in Champaign on January 11th, 2018.

That win against the Fighting Illini was the only on the road for the Hawkeyes last season. A year later and they have a trio of neutral site victories to go with last week’s win in Evanston. With the win over Ohio State, they also have 14 total on the season - the same as they won all last season.

So what’s different? A lot. The most obvious difference is on the defensive side. It hasn’t been easy and you can see old habits reemerge from time to time. But other times, this team is almost unrecognizable. They play with effort and intensity, that if there consistently in every game would likely have this team very comfortably in the NCAA Tournament come March.

Despite a brutal first half offensively on Saturday, we saw that defense shine through for the entire game. With some help from the Buckeyes, Iowa held Ohio State to just 26 first half points. They also held their second straight Big Ten opponent under 65 points for the game. That’s a really good number, even if it is at least in part driven by the offensive game plan of opponents.

The effort is there from everyone and it truly only works if they all play together. The team must rotate and help as a unit or the whole thing collapses. They’ve done that by-and-large on the year.

But we saw some excellent individual effort on Saturday. Tyler Cook, in particular, rose to the occasion. He’s shown much more intensity all year, often being the guy slapping the floor as the opponent crosses mid court. Saturday, he did much more, coming up with a pair of big time blocks to turn momentum and halt OSU runs.

Plays like that are contagious; they rub off on teammates, who strive for the same intensity. We saw that Saturday with Maishe Dailey. While going scoreless in his 8 minutes, Dailey played the role of defensive stopper. That’s a role that suits him better than that of a penetrating guard, where he’s best known for “dribbling with his head down into a double team” (side note: Iowa improved to 14-1 with Dolph on the call Saturday, and remain 0-2 without him). We also saw the likes of Isaiah Moss stepping up and into passing lanes. Those little things start to become habit and a major deficiency drifts toward, if nothing else, a net neutral.

A season ago, Iowa finished 308th nationally in defensive efficiency. There are 351 teams. That’s not ideal. As it stands today, the Hawkeyes rank 135th. That’s not where they’d like it to be, but it’s a tremendous improvement over a season ago.

The results are further evidence of what most Iowa fans have known for some time: the defense doesn’t have to be perfect, it just has to be serviceable for this team to make the dance. This season, it’s been better than serviceable for good portions of the season.

The offense, on the other hand, remains tremendous. The Hawkeyes rank 17th nationally in offensive efficiency. That’s up 15 spots from a season ago, when they finished 32nd nationally. It’s not rocket science: this group has been really good offensively for a while, but now that they’ve dedicated themselves to playing at least some defense, the results are following.

The real key will be how well that intensity lasts as the season drags on. I have confidence. Not because I don’t expect some bumps along the way (there will be plenty), but because the cupcakes have come and gone. If players were going to take it easy on the defensive end, I would have expected that in the pay games. Frankly, I think we saw a bit of that, especially against Bryant. Now, with the heart of the Big Ten schedule coming up and a return to the tournament on the line, I’m not questioning the heart of this team.

Despite already matching last season’s win total in only the second week of January, there’s a long way to go. And there could be some difficulties due to injury. It remains to be seen how long Cook will be out with his ankle sprain and given the recent history of guys like Connor McCaffery (concussion), Ryan Kriener (also concussion) and Luka Garza (ankle), things could get dicey.

As of now, though, the Hawkeyes will almost certainly be back in the rankings this week. Since dropping out of the AP last week, they picked up a road win and a home win against #16 Ohio State. But they also picked up a lot of help.

On Saturday, a slew of ranked teams went down. That includes #13 FSU (to Duke, but still a loss), #12 UNC (which was blown out by Louisville at home after beating #15 NC State at their place on Tuesday), #14 Mississippi State, #20 Iowa State, #24 St. John’s, #25 TCU and of course, #16 Ohio State, who lost a pair of games in the week and has now lost 4 straight.

That’s not all, though. Ohio State wasn’t the only ranked team to lose multiple games on the week. #14 Mississippi State also lost at South Carolina on Tuesday, #20 ISU lost at Baylor on Tuesday, #24 St. John’s also lost at Villanova on Tuesday and #25 TCU also lost at Kansas earlier in the week. Earlier in the week, #22 Indiana lost at Maryland on Friday, #11 Auburn lost at Ole Miss and #17 Houston lost at Temple on Wednesday and #23 Oklahoma lost at #8 TTU on Tuesday.

In total, there were 18 losses by ranked teams last week. It’s a safe assumption Iowa’s big week will vault them into the top 25, likely somewhere near the top 20. They’re also in a good spot as we look toward March. ESPN’s Joe Lunardi put out his weekly bracketology on Saturday. The Hawkeyes came in at #31, safely in the field. The win over Ohio State will only help Iowa’s case.

As we look toward the rest of the season, things are setting up quite nicely. In the midst of a 3-game win streak, Iowa is set to take on a pair of Big Ten cellar-dwellers as they travel to Penn State on Wednesday before hosting Illinois next Sunday.

From there, things heat up substantially as they proceed to host #6 MSU and #2 Michigan, with a trip to Minnesota sandwiched in between. If the Hawkeyes can win 3 of their next 5, this season is likely to end with Iowa in the NCAA Tournament.

In the 5 games that follow the Gopher sandwich, Iowa takes on #22 Indiana twice while playing host to Northwestern and Maryland and traveling to Rutgers in between. That’s another stretch where Iowa has a chance to elevate expectations. Three wins in there (following the 3 in the previous 5) and the Hawkeyes are fighting for seeding in the top-8.

That would be a tremendous spot to be in with the season rounding out at Ohio State, home against Rutgers, at Wisconsin and at Nebraska. Iowa is likely to be north of 20 wins at the end of the season, perhaps well north. I believe that puts them safely in the field.

That’s a place we all want to expect them on an annual basis. It’s also a place few expected them to be at the outset of the season, and some didn’t expect just ten days ago. With the new-found effort on the defensive side of the ball and the same old offensive output, this team is close.

Let’s be mad again.

Happy Monday. Let’s see some intensity this week. Beat the Nittany Lions and Illini.

Go Hawks.