The Iowa Hawkeyes got another blowout win on Sunday as they demolished the Northwestern Wildcats 96-73 in Evanston. While the win on the surface is impressive and helped Iowa moved not only atop the Big Ten standings, but also up to #4 nationally, it’s blowout nature also gave Iowa’s key contributors plenty of rest.
That’s becoming a theme this season for the Hawkeyes and something that could bode well for Iowa down the stretch. Just over halfway through the scheduled regular season games, Iowa boasts a 12-2 record. But of those 12 wins, 10 have come by at least 15 points. Many have not been as close as the final score might indicate, as was the case on Sunday.
While Iowa defeated Northwestern by just 23 points, the Hawkeyes led for the final 32:17 with the lead at one time as high as 27. Then Fran McCaffery started to sub out his starters with more than 12 minutes left in the game.
As a result of the blowout nature of Sunday’s game, superstar Luka Garza played just 24 minutes. While that meant his season scoring average took a hit with just 17 points (it’s worth again pointing out just how absurd it is to say “just” when talking about a 17/10 outing, but that’s where we are with Garza), it also meant some well deserved rest that is starting to add up.
While 24 minutes seems low for the nation player of the year front-runner, it’s not his lowest minute total of the year and marks the 5th time this season Garza has played 25 or fewer minutes. On the year, he’s averaging 29.5 minutes per game. While that seems like a decent number, it’s 2.5 minutes per game fewer than a season ago.
Does 2.5 minutes a game really matter? Yes. Across the 14 games played so far, that’s a total of 35 fewer minutes played - essentially a full game. While the MPG is likely to go up a bit as Iowa faces the teeth of a Big Ten schedule, Garza will likely play nearly two whole games less this year than he did in last year’s regular season based on MPG alone. Factor in that last year’s schedule included 4 more games than are included on this year’s and Garza is going to play basically 6 fewer games than a season ago (knock on wood that Iowa is able to make up its games against MSU and Nebraska with no further schedule impacts). That’s nearly 20% of last season’s games.
But the big man isn’t alone. Despite Fran McCaffery notably cutting his rotation from 11 to 9 this year, Iowa’s starters are all averaging fewer minutes per game than a season ago with the exception of Jordan Bohannon, who is up to 28 MPG from 25 last year. Joe Wieskamp is down to 26.9 MPG from 32.5 a season ago. CJ Fredrick is down to 26.4 from 28.7 last year. Connor McCaffery is down the most at 22.1 vs. 30.1 a season ago. All told, not a single Hawkeyes is averaging more than 30 minutes a game compared to three a year ago.
Those are meaningful dropoffs.
They are, perhaps, most meaningful when taken in historical context. Iowa has spent the entirety of the 2020-2021 season ranked inside the top-10 nationally and with the exception of the week following the OT road loss to Minnesota, the Hawkeyes have been in the top-5 every week. The last time Iowa was ranked in the top-5 was February of 2016.
That 2015-2016 season is one of joy and scars for Iowa fans. The Sports Illustrated cover featuring Jarrod Uthoff still adorns at least one Hawkeye fan’s coffee table (right on top of DJK hurdling a teammate). Iowa was a joy to watch that year. Or more precisely: Iowa was a joy to watch for half that year.
The 2015-2016 season was mired by a collapse of Hawkeye proportions. After jumping out to a 16-3 start and then rebounding to 19-4 after a road loss to Maryland, which kept Iowa inside the top-5 from late January through mid-February, the Hawkeyes went on to lose four straight and five of the final six. They finished the regular season 21-10 losing six of eight. Seven of their ten losses that year came in the time since they jumped into the top-5.
There’s plenty of room for debate on all the causes of the collapse, but an undeniable fact was Iowa leaned heavily on a core of players despite Fran’s notoriously large rotation. The Hawkeyes had ten players average at least 9 minutes per game (including Brady Ellingson at 9.1 and Dom Uhl at 17.2 MPG) and all five starters at more than 25 minutes per game.
When comparing 2020-2021 to 2015-2016, there are significant differences, but one glaring one is the star power of this team with Garza and the drastic difference in minutes that will be on his, and other starters’, legs come March. That ‘15-’16 team had three players averaging more minutes than Garza has this season, including Jarrod Uthoff at 31.5 and both Mike Gesell and Anthony Clemmons at more than 29.5.
A stumble down the stretch is still possible in ‘20-’21. Iowa has far and away the most difficult remaining schedule of any of the Big Ten’s contenders. The Hawkeyes have 6 games remaining against teams currently ranked in the AP top-25 (compared to just 2 in 2016), including road trips to #22 Illinois, #10 Wisconsin, #15 Ohio State and #7 Michigan.
But one thing that shouldn’t be a deciding factor is fatigue. Thanks to all the big leads, Fran McCaffery has had the luxury of resting his stars down the stretch of several games. That could play a role in how we remember this unprecedented season for years to come.