It was almost exactly a month ago from today when the #17 Iowa Hawkeyes (16-7, 7-5) lost to the Nebraska Cornhuskers (7-15, 2-9), 76-70. The game highlighted all of the issues we’ve seen from past Hawkeye squads: inexplicably cold shooting, Random Guy (or Guys) X going off from deep, a general malaise on the effort front.
But after what has felt like rock bottom for the season - and at 1-3, it certainly was an ugly start to conference play - the Hawkeyes have bounced back well. They blew out Maryland to jumpstart a five-game winning streak. They got CJ Fredrick back to provide necessary offense. They’ve shown an unusual grittiness during much of their 6-2 stretch.
And then Wednesday happened.
For Iowa’s game against Purdue to be simply a blip and not portend the dreaded February Fade, they must show they’ve learned from this week’s game against the Boilermakers even if they didn’t watch film of it. With a sellout crowd, anything less than an energetic start borders on unacceptable.
Haanif Cheatham: The senior forward came out and shot 3/4 from deep during the last matchup. Paired with the red hot Thorir Thorbjarnarson (shooting 46% from deep in conference play), the two can provide the spacing to loosen a defense to create driving lanes. But if those driving lanes open up, there’s legitimate questions as to whether the Huskers can convert: they’re shooting just 48% from two (bottom 100), are the most blocked team in the country (13.9%), and convert less than 60% of their free throws (second worse in the country). The rim protection Luka Garza and Ryan Kriener provide will help determine just how close the game might be.
Cam Mack: The sophomore juco transfer has been the straw that stirs Fred Hoiberg’s drink. He’s top 20 in assist percentage and his raw average (6.6/game) ranks 3rd in the conference. Leading the team in scoring, he can convert in the lane and from deep and at 4.5 boards/game, he can jumpstart their transition offense. He posted a double-double the last time these two faced and is coming off a zero-point outing against PSU so expect Hoiberg to look to get him going.
Charlie Easley: Perhaps it is really dumb of me to remember the pesky walk-on’s effort in the win against Iowa. However, he was emblematic of the effort disparity between the two teams and gave 100% every second he was on the court. He is not gifted offensively but is will-to-win stuck out in the last matchup. More than anything, who will be that guy for Iowa?
Does Nebraska play the same defense as last time? People forget that Iowa was missing a top 15 shooter the last time these two played. It enabled the Cornhuskers to sell out in stopping Luka Garza with a defense that resembled something from the 1950s. Perhaps the most important thing it did for them, was that it limited their foul trouble significantly. Iowa went to the free throw line just 5 times, as Iowa struggled to get Garza the ball in places where he could attack the rim. It is a Hoibergian trait for his defense to limit foul shots - five of his six teams are in the top 30 of defensive free throw rate - so let’s not expect 30 trips to the foul line today. But if Iowa gets it going from deep, it will mean more 1-on-1 matchups for Garza.
Do we see Iowa practice what they preach? Maybe the most frustrating thing from past McCaffery-led squads has been the empty rhetoric of knowing what they need to do to get better. It happened throughout much of 2018 and reared its head a bit down the stretch of last year. Everyone knows Iowa needs to amp up the effort to limit their losing streak at one but do they actually do it? Throughout much of this season, these guys have shown their different than past Hawkeye squads in their mentality and grit. I trust this team to come out with a true fire after being embarrassed against Purdue.
Can Iowa get any bench scoring? It was a function of no starter playing more than 31 minutes, but perhaps the only positive from the game against Purdue was seeing each of Ryan Kriener, Bakari Evelyn, and Cordell Pemsl get on the board for 19 total points. Riley Till and Austin Ash added 5 more, but it’s unlikely Iowa will turn to them to get any sort of scoring. in non-garbage time. Bench scoring is even more important if Fran McCaffery continues to insist on a lineup where none of Fredrick, Joe Wieskamp, or Garza are on the floor. Iowa has been able to manage around those lineups for much of the last month but those groups have to provide some scoring lift while they play.