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Fran Speaks: Northwestern

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Iowa is coming off a big home win over Maryland, but now face another road test after their breakdown in Lincoln.

NCAA Basketball: Maryland at Iowa
No smiles for Fran until he takes care of the Wildcats.
Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports

Ahead of Iowa’s trip to Evanston tonight to take on the Northwestern Wildcats, Fran McCaffery addressed the media on Monday in his weekly teleconference. The transcript (via HawkeyeReport.com) is rather short as you might expect given Fran just spoke to the media following Friday’s win over Maryland and had just addressed them the Thursday prior.

He did speak nonetheless and perhaps the thing Hawkeye fans care most about is the update on CJ Fredrick.

It’s hard on him. He’s trying to do some things and see how it feels. He shot a little bit yesterday, but didn’t do too much. We will see how he is tomorrow.

Well that sounds promising. We’ve been bracing for a 4-6 week timeline and are nowhere near that so hearing the sharpshooter is able to at least get some shots up is a real positive. While Fran continues to insist Fredrick is day-to-day, I remain skeptical we see CJ in game action before the end of January.

Still, it’s hard to read that as anything but good news.

When pressed on the timeline Fran reiterated everything depends on how Fredrick feels each day.

Yeah, I think he will come back at some point. If it’s Tuesday…it’s literally day to day. If he has a bad day, then he won’t. If it’s a good day, then he plays and we see how it goes from there. Probably be like that for the rest of the season.

That sounds a lot like the approach to Jordan Bohannon earlier this season to me.

On to Northwestern.

I really like their team. They have a lot of really good young players. Kopp and Nance played well last year and now they are sophomores. Buie is a tremendous freshman. Turner has always been a good player and he’s an older guy. Spencer was obviously a great lacrosse player, but that’s sort of irrelevant. He’s a tremendous basketball player. The guy has great feel. He can shoot it and drive it and he’s athletic. He is a really good player that plays with tremendous confidence.

I’m trying to recall if there’s ever been a negative word uttered by Fran about any player, opposing or his own. There’s no doubt Northwestern has some talented players and they could knock off the Hawkeyes. They took out Nebraska, something Iowa was unable to do. However, there’s a reason they come into this one 6-9. Iowa should be able to handle them.

The one issue is this one is on the road. In the Big Ten thus far, that’s been a death sentence. Fran was asked about the incredible home records for the conference so far this season.

I just think the benefit is always with the home team, especially if the home team is good. There could be a variety of factors and I really don’t think much about it. When you look at the venues, it’s going to be difficult. I don’t care where you go and the percentages are going to be against you when you are on the road. You just have to have a certain toughness and mentality that you are going to connected and follow the game plan in a way that we support each other and do our best to play well.

Kirk Ferentz would be proud of that non-answer.

Put simply, the Big Ten has a bunch of really good teams, two stinkers and nobody ranked in the top-10 nationally. When you have 12 teams within 20 spots of each other in the NET rankings, you’re going to get a lot of close games and confusing outcomes. Advantage to the home team.

But this isn’t one of those 12 teams, it’s one of the two outliers. Iowa already lost to one a week ago. They can’t afford another road loss to one of the two clear laggards in an otherwise great league.

So how do you avoid another bad loss? With the loss of CJ Fredrick and the offense coming back down to earth (it’s fallen from #1 nationally to #7), Iowa has to focus on improving on the defensive end. They’ve been trending in that direction. On Friday, Iowa held a Big Ten opponent to fewer than 50 points for just the third time under McCaffery.

How’d they do that?

I think our transition defense was good and it has to be against them. We played a mix of man and zone and I thought were locked into their personnel. We didn’t give them a lot of second shot opportunities and they tend to hurt you with second shots. I thought we were paying close attention to Cowan, who is capable of giving them 25 on any night and we did a good job on him. I think collectively we were in a position to sustain what we were trying to do for 40 minutes.

That absolutely has to continue until the Hawkeyes can get the offense rolling again. In that loss to Nebraska, Iowa was able to score 70 points. That should be enough to win against the Cornhuskers and the Wildcats. But the 76 points given up was a problem.

It seems like Fran understands that, but throughout his career at Iowa, his teams have struggled defensively. This year may be the year that finally changes. We’ve seen better rotations for the most part and plenty of effort on the defensive end. That’s helped the Hawkeyes raise their adjusted defense ranking to #75 nationally per KenPom. That would be the best by Iowa since 2016 when they finished the season 30th in adjusted defense.

If the Hawkeyes get anywhere near that down the stretch this season, with a slew of quadrant one games remaining, they will be in the NCAA Tournament. Provided, of course, they don’t have another atrocious shooting night in Evanston tonight.