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Iowa Basketball: Hawkeyes Fall to San Diego State 83-73 in Las Vegas Invitational Championship

The Hawkeyes fall to 5-2, but are they trending in the right direction?

NCAA Basketball: Oral Roberts at Iowa
The rug was pulled out from under Fran and the Hawkeyes Friday night.
Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports

For half of Iowa’s matchup with San Diego State Friday night, it looked like Hawkeye fans were going to get a Thanksgiving trifecta. A night after knocking off #12 Texas Tech and hours after Iowa football took down Nebraska to keep the Huskers out of bow contention, the men’s hoops team had the SDSU Aztecs on the ropes.

Iowa came out firing Friday night and played with a defensive intensity we’ve rarely seen under Fran McCaffery. After falling behind 17-13 just over 6 minutes into the game, the Hawkeyes went on a tear. Iowa outscored SDSU 24-4 over the next 10 minutes to jump out to a 37-21 lead with 3 minutes left in the half.

During that stretch, the defensive intensity was downright impressive from the Hawkeyes. Unfortunately, the Aztecs fought through it to bring the game to within 9 at 41-32 to close out the half.

Things continued to trend the wrong direction in the second half as San Diego State came out on a 15-4 run to regain the lead at the 15 minute mark. The Hawkeyes fought hard, but never regained the lead.

Ultimately, the Aztecs won 83-73. It was a roller coaster ride as Iowa looked far superior in the first half and nearly ran SDSU out of the gym. The second half wasn’t a mirror image, but Iowa’s defense creates far fewer turnovers and the Aztecs began shooting incredibly well. After looking so good for nearly half the game, it’s frustrating to have another quality slip through the Hawkeyes’ fingertips.

Despite the loss, there were some takeaways from Friday’s championship game.

Small Ball is the Way Forward

The injury to Jack Nunge has forced Fran McCaffery’s hand. Not only has he had to shorten the bench and limit his rotations, but he’s been forced to go small for the majority of the time.

Iowa started Friday night with four guards on the floor around center Luka Garza. That was despite SDSU’s talented big duo in the post. To counter, Fran put PG Connor McCaffery on Yanni Wetzell. It was effective.

Not only was it effective, Iowa was able to control the pace and put substantial pressure on SDSU. It worked well at the outset, but was at its best when Joe Toussaint was on the floor with CJ Fredrick, Joe Wieskamp and either McCaffery or Jordan Bohannon. That gives Iowa four ball handlers and the intensity Toussaint plays with seems to rub off on the entire team.

This is Iowa’s best path forward.

Luka Garza is a Heavyweight Title Fighter

Garza had a rough go Friday night. He finished with only 9 points but hauled in 8 rebounds in 25 minutes.

His struggles, however, had more to do with foul trouble than his effectiveness. Garza remains tremendous around the hoop and can score at will seemingly. If Iowa can keep him out of foul trouble and his face in one piece (he took yet another elbow to the face Friday night, drawing a flagrant foul) he will be critical to success with a small lineup.

Joe Toussaint is a Problem

Toussaint’s minutes continued to climb Friday, reaching 22. That’s a number that should grow to north of 25 as the season goes on.

JT brings a different gear to the floor and his defensive intensity fueled Iowa for a stretch when they extended their first half lead to 16. It didn’t seem to matter who was on the floor with him, as Fran cycled through Bakari Evelyn, each of the 4 starting guards and even went to a more traditional lineup with Ryan Kriener and Cordell Pemsl in the post during the run. Toussaint was seemingly all over the floor on defense.

On offense, he’s the guy Iowa has been missing who can get to the hoop whenever he wants. His shot is streaky, but he brings an entirely different element to this team that’s going to be a problem for opponents.

Joe Wieskamp Needs to be the Man

After lighting up the stat sheet on Thanksgiving, Joe Wieskamp had some struggles on Black Friday. He finished with just 5 points and one rebound in 26 minutes. That came on a brutal 2-10 shooting night where Joe was 1-4 from beyond the arc.

In the first half, that wasn’t a problem as the defense was creating turnovers, SDSU was struggling to hit shots and other Hawkeyes were hitting open looks. But when things got tough in the second half, Iowa needed Joe Wieskamp to stress up and be the man to pull them out of the slump.

His shot wasn’t falling, but Joe struggled to do anything else in an effort to get going. Fran gets some of the blame for not drawing much up to help him get easy buckets, but too often Wieskamp settled for pull up mid-range jumpers when he could have gotten to the line or the rim. For Iowa to be successful, JW has to be the man when the offense needs a bucket.

This is a Tournament Team

Despite how things looked a short while ago when the Hawkeyes were nearly run out of the gym by DePaul, what we saw in Las Vegas was an NCAA Tournament team. Blowing a 16-point lead to SDSU is frustrating, but what we saw for a half was a team capable of hanging with anyone in the country.

Now, 7 games into the season, Iowa prepares for a brutal stretch of schedule. But they come in at 5-2 with no bad losses (DePaul and San Diego State have a combined zero losses) and a signature win over Texas Tech. This team is going to lose plenty of games this season, but they’re also going to win some big ones. Things are certainly trending in the right direction.