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This Week Presents Major Challenges, But Real Opportunities for Iowa Basketball

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While finishing this week of play 3-0 will prove a difficult task, such a run would be just what the Hawkeyes need to find their footing after a difficult stretch.

NCAA Basketball: Iowa at Illinois Patrick Gorski-USA TODAY Sports

For the first time all season, Iowa basketball is riding a losing streak. That the Hawkeyes dropped two straight games in January in the country’s toughest conference is hardly reason for pessimism, particularly given how well the team has performed overall this season. However, for Hawkeye fans who weary of the dreaded “Fran Fade,” a term that inevitably creeps up on message boards every year in which Iowa’s play begin to tail off in the waning Winter months, this short skid could be a sign that the program could be in for more of the same in 2021.

Fortunately, the 2020-21 Iowa squad is not built like the Iowa teams that saw their performances fall off a cliff in years past. No recent Hawkeye teams have had a matchup nightmare like Luka Garza on their roster, a player whose absence foul trouble had a lot to do with Iowa’s loss against Illinois, but who is virtually un-guardable when on the court. Previous Iowa squads have also lacked the sheer depth of elite three-point shooting talent boasted by this team, an area which will be significantly bolstered once starting shooting guard C.J. Fredrick returns from his injury that forced him to miss all of the Illinois game and the entire second half of the contest against Indiana. Furthermore, none of McCaffery’s former teams have gotten to test their mettle against such a stacked schedule full of elite competition, something which will hopefully prepare the players for the grind of the NCAA Tournament even if it depresses its record a bit during the regular season. All things considered, the fundamentals that made this team a legitimate title contender in November remain intact and ready to help carry the Hawkeyes to a very successful March, assuming the team can right the ship before then.

Iowa’s next week of competition presents a major opportunity for the team to course-correct and put talk of a potential “Fran Fade” behind them. The Hawkeyes play host to Michigan State on Tuesday, welcome #13 Ohio State to Carver-Hawkeye Arena on Thursday, and travel to Bloomington in hopes of avenging their loss to Indiana from two weekends ago. While finishing this week of play 3-0 will prove a difficult task, such a run would be just what the Hawkeyes need to find their footing after a difficult stretch and prove they are ready to face the more difficult trials that lay ahead in the coming months.

Each opponent on Iowa’s schedule this week presents the Hawkeyes with a unique challenge that will test the team in different ways. The Spartans may be one of the worst shooting teams in the conference (as of this writing they rank dead last in Big Ten play in both two-point field goal % and made three pointers), but they have a backcourt stacked with athletes who can beat opponents off the dribble, a player archetype that has frequently frustrated Hawkeye defenders over the years. MSU head coach Tom Izzo also drew up as effective a blueprint for defending Luka Garza last season as anyone, swarming the Hawkeye big man with undersized, but physical and athletic defenders who held him to 8-21 from the field. Can Garza display the huge strides he’s made when playing against double-teams this season while also adjusting to whatever new wrinkles Izzo and his staff throw his way? And can Iowa’s perimeter defenders show that they can defend on-ball against the types of athletes they hope to match up against in later rounds of the NCAA Tournament?

Speaking of late-round caliber teams, Ohio State presents the Hawkeyes with a matchup against an opponent ranked in KenPom’s Top Ten and which boasts the fifth most efficient offense in the country according to his metrics. While Buckeye players like EJ Liddell, Justice Sueing, and Duane Washington are capable of putting major stress on Iowa’s defense, the other end of the court arguably presents a more intriguing challenge for the Hawkeyes. Iowa’s fantastic 39.5% three-point shooting rate against Big Ten teams will be tested by a Buckeye defense that is allowing conference opponents to shoot a Big Ten-low 30.6% against them from beyond the arc. Ohio State has an army of long 6’7-6’8 defenders that they can throw at Iowa’s shooters to contest their shots, and Hawkeye point guard Jordan Bohannon may have difficulty getting the looks he wants when confronted with the Buckeyes’ length. Can Iowa prove that it remains an elite three-point shooting team even with Fredrick out? Or will Chris Holtmann’s squad be able to stymie the Hawkeyes from deep the way Indiana did?

Iowa’s final game of the week not only presents the team with an opportunity to avenge a recent loss but will also serve as a measuring stick for how well the Hawkeyes have been able to adapt since their last game against the Hoosiers, particularly if C.J. Fredrick remains out. The Iowa offense collapsed against the Hoosiers after its sophomore sharpshooter went down, and its defense was unable to adapt to Indiana’s counterpunches in the second half. Will the Hawkeyes show that they’ve learned their lessons from the first loss and developed a strategy that can beat Indiana the second time around? If the Hawkeyes fall to the Hoosiers again, it may be time to start worrying that Indiana coach Archie Miller has found a blueprint which other teams can use to attack Iowa over the coming months. Fran McCaffery’s squad certainly bounced back in impressive fashion in its rematch against Minnesota, and a similar showing in the second game against Indiana would be an encouraging sign for the team’s growth.

Finally, this week’s condensed schedule gives Iowa an excellent chance to simulate the type of intense schedule they’ll need to navigate to achieve their goals this March. Not only will the Hawkeyes need to win several competitive games over a short time period if they hope to advance deep into the Big Ten or NCAA Tournament, but Iowa’s regular season conference title hopes may well be decided in a seven day stretch in late February-early March in which Iowa travels to both #13 Ohio State and #4 Michigan before hosting #14 Wisconsin in their home finale. After participating in only two games over the past two weeks, it will be revealing to see how the Hawkeyes handle the physical and mental stress of playing three critical games this week while also dealing with both the internal and external challenges that can emerge during a losing streak. By sweeping its next three opponents, Iowa would go a long way towards showing it has the resilience needed to make the dreaded “Fran Fade” a thing of the past.

Iowa basketball may be down for the moment, but it is very far from being out. If the Hawkeyes can emerge unscathed after running this week’s gauntlet of difficult, but winnable games, Iowa fans may be able to talk about their team getting stronger as the season progresses instead of worrying about them falling off. Should Iowa continue to struggle this week, however, it may reveal just how much improvement is still needed for the team to contend this Spring.