A lot can change in a day.
On Tuesday morning, Iowa fans were preparing for the Hawkeyes to begin what was hoped to be a mini-run that could solidify their NCAA Tournament chances come March. The team had fallen from the national polls with a hard-fought loss to Penn State over the weekend, but were firmly in the field based on their NET ranking and the resume they’ve built to-date this season. They had a signature win early over Texas Tech and no real bad losses despite the early season defeat at the hands of DePaul.
They had a trip to Nebraska to take on a Cornhusker team that was supposed to be a relative pushover. From there, Iowa was set to play three of their next four games in Carver with the lone road trip to Evanston to take on a struggling Northwestern squad.
Put simply, things were trending in the right direction, despite the loss at Penn State.
Enter the mounting injuries. We learned on Monday afternoon that CJ Fredrick missed the second half of that matchup with Penn State due to a foot injury and was day-to-day going forward. We also learned Connor McCaffery played in that game despite an illness that had him vomiting all day on Sunday.
What we didn’t know was the foot injury to Fredrick was in fact a stress reaction injury that would keep him out of the contest with Nebraska. While McCaffery was able to go, the Hawkeyes were left with just seven scholarship players coming off that hard-fought loss at Penn State.
The results were brutally bad. Iowa took on Nebraska with no legs and no reinforcements. It showed on both ends of the floor.
While the Hawkeyes had stretches of decent defense, they also had major lapses that resulted in wide open looks for the Huskers. On the offensive end, Iowa had the eighth worst shooting performance of the Fran era. Making matters worse, the defense employed by Nebraska necessitated Iowa continuing to shoot from deep. The Hawkeyes launched twice as many threes against Nebraska as they did in the next closest shooting performance that was worse.
It was a brutally bad performance from a team that has shown nothing but fight and effort all season.
Adding insult to injury, literally, is things don’t look to be getting much better. In the post-game press conference, Fran McCaffery was asked about Fredrick’s status. It doesn’t sound great.
Q: A stress reaction can be a little tricky. Do you have to be cautious with C.J. in bringing him back?
McCAFFERY: Yeah. It has to be.
Q: When do you expect him back?
McCAFFERY: I don’t know that I can expect anything. The only thing that I can expect is what the trainers and the doctors tell me. Is he cleared to play or is he not cleared to play? I will not put him out there under any risk. At some point if we have to shut him down, we will shut him down. Right now it’s still day to day and until they tell me otherwise that’s how we will go with it.
Fran continues to toe the company line that CJ is day-to-day, but the typical recovery timeline for a stress reaction injury is 4-6 weeks. That’s in line with the potential for shutting him down. That would be devastating.
As we against Nebraska, the formula for beating Iowa right now is to pack things in to slow down Luka Garza. The Big Ten’s leading scorer was double- and triple-teamed by the Huskers with all five defenders playing with a foot in the paint nearly the entire game. That led to wide open looks for a number of Iowa shooters. Hence the 33 attempts from deep. When those don’t go in, Iowa is going to lose to teams like Nebraska. That will kill their chances at the NCAA Tournament.
However, all hope should not be lost. Iowa will not shoot 12% from beyond the arc again this season. You can take that to the bank. And even with a bad shooting performance (say 25% vs. the season average of 34%), Iowa wins against Nebraska.
More importantly, even a bad shooting night will make teams pay for double- and triple-teaming Luka Garza. It’s unlikely we’ll see any other team able to pack the paint as much as Nebraska did given Iowa simply won’t be that bad from deep again. This is a different team when Luka Garza has room to operate.
There is also the other end of the spectrum. As teams do try to follow the Husker blueprint, there are going to be a lot of good looks. Iowa is bound to have a good night from the floor at some point. The nature of averages dictates that to be the case. When they do, this group can hang with just about anyone.
The loss to Nebraska was a crushing blow to Iowa’s NCAA Tournament chances. A long term absence from CJ Fredrick may close the door entirely on those chances. But this is a tough team with a lot of heart. They are going to knock of a team or two they shouldn’t. If/when they do get Fredrick back, I sure wouldn’t want to be playing against them in a game I needed to win.