Last week revealed the highs and lows that the 2020-21 basketball team is capable of reaching. Thursday’s 79-57 loss to #3 Michigan showed the Hawkeyes at their absolute worst; a team forced to play without two important contributors who were sidelined by mid-game injuries and was incapable of matching the Wolverines on either end of the floor. A few days later, the Hawkeyes would rebound by putting together their best performance of the season in a 73-57 road win against a fourth-ranked Ohio State squad that entered the game with more wins against Quad 1 opponents than any team college basketball. With both games being played in front of national audiences, college basketball fans who might have tuned in this week to watch Iowa for the first time this season can be forgiven for having no idea which of these two performances best reflects the real Hawkeyes.
Iowa’s loss to Michigan was a perfect storm of poor performance and bad luck. The Hawkeyes shot an abnormally low 35.6% from the field against the Wolverines, well below their season average of 47.1%. Michigan center Hunter Dickinson was a perfect mirror to Garza on defense and managed to shut him down without requiring a double-team, leaving Iowa’s perimeter players to fend for themselves against Michigan’s tenacious on-ball defense. The Hawkeyes mustered only four assists against Michigan, the fewest in any game under Fran McCaffery. Poor ball movement and a slew of missed shots created easy scoring opportunities for Michigan in transition, while injuries to Jack Nunge and Connor McCaffery narrowed Iowa’s options for mustering an effective counterpunch. When the Hawkeye offense fails to uphold its end of the bargain, the team’s defensive warts (poor transition defense, struggles in guarding athletic wings players) are only further magnified, and Thursday night was no exception.
However, Iowa’s game against Ohio State showed just how high the Hawkeyes’ ceiling could be. While Iowa’s offense against the Wolverines was characterized by aimless perimeter dribbling and thwarted attempts to feed the post, the Hawkeyes confounded the Buckeyes with crisp ball movement and excellent cuts, while Luka Garza feasted against both single and double coverage on the low block. Joe Wieskamp was aggressive and impactful from range (5-9 from three), but also proved willing to attack Ohio State’s defenders off the dribble. Jordan Bohannon and Joe Toussaint put on a passing clinic while combining for 12 assists against only two turnovers, with the former player becoming the program’s all-time assist leader midway through the second half. Iowa’s much-maligned defense held an Ohio State team, which came into the game with the nation’s third-highest offensive efficiency according to KenPom, to a season-low 57 points. The Buckeye offense appeared to have rediscovered its rhythm early in the second half, but several impactful defensive plays from Keegan Murray, Joe Wieskamp, and Joe Toussaint helped stymie the Buckeyes any time they appeared ready to take control of the game.
For better or worse, the “real” Iowa team is likely somewhere between the peaks and valleys it displayed last week. However, for the Hawkeyes to make a run in the Big Ten and NCAA Tournaments, they will need to bottle several of the things they did right in their win against Ohio State. Iowa’s defense, which moved expertly between man-to-man and the 2-3 zone on Sunday, must continue to build on the improvements it has made over the past few weeks. Iowa’s matchup zone is an increasingly effective change of pace to slow down opposing offenses when they are getting overly comfortable against Iowa’s man looks, but teams have proven able to exploit the zone for easy looks in both the mid-range and on the perimeter when the Hawkeyes stay in this scheme for too long. Iowa’s players, particularly its guards, have made noticeable improvements in their man-to-man defense over the past month, and they must continue to build on this intensity if they hope to replicate Sunday’s defensive showing going forward.
The Hawkeyes also benefited hugely by rediscovering the value of Joe Toussaint, whose 14 minutes against the Buckeyes were the most time he’s received on the court since his excellent performance against Michigan State on February 2nd. The lightning quick sophomore gave Iowa’s offense another gear, and his ability to press the pace in transition put serious pressure on the Buckeye defense, forcing it to collapse to stop Toussaint from reaching the rim and creating several easy scoring opportunities for his teammates. Toussaint was also a bulldog on defense, playing tight, effective coverage on his man while also making several smart and impactful plays as a weakside help defender. Toussaint has frequently tested coach McCaffery’s trust in him with his questionable decision-making, and it’s easy to understand why he doesn’t get the type of minutes one might expect from someone who started 20 games last season. However, Sunday’s game should remind fans how important it is for the coaches to properly unlock his skillset, as there is nobody on this Hawkeye squad who can fill the niches of perimeter ball-stopper and drive-kick weapon quite as well as he can.
As excellent as the Hawkeyes looked on Sunday, they still have several potential pitfalls which could cause their sky-high aspirations to come crashing back to Earth. The injury to Jack Nunge has created precarious depth at the center position and will likely force Keegan Murray and Patrick McCaffery to see more minutes at that position down the stretch. Garza played 38 minutes against the Buckeyes (the most he’s played since Iowa’s overtime loss to Minnesota in January), but it’s unclear whether he can sustain this workload going forward or how Fran will respond should Garza get into foul trouble. Neither Murray nor McCaffery have the bulk to wrestle with larger centers in the low post, and forcing Murray to guard opposing fives prevents Iowa from utilizing one of his most important skills as someone who can lock down opposing wings or athletic power forwards.
Iowa must also worry about C.J. Fredrick’s lingering leg injury, which seems to have shaken his shooting confidence over the past few games. Iowa’s offense works best when it can surround Garza with elite shooters who can punish opponents from double-teaming him, and getting Fredrick back to level of volume and efficiency he showed back in December and which he flashed against Penn State will be essential going forward.
Finally, there is the Garza factor. Luka may well have secured his player of the year status with his performance against the Buckeyes, but his 6-19 showing against Michigan created plenty of cause for concern. Even the best players experience the occasional off shooting night, and Hunter Dickinson deserved tremendous credit for his phenomenal performance against the Hawkeye center. But Iowa’s offense had exactly zero answer to Dickinson taking Garza out of the game, and the Hawkeyes were held to their lowest point total of the season as a result.
Iowa isn’t likely to face many centers who can shut down Luka without relying on consistent help from the double-team, and Garza is savvy enough that he will likely have an answer for Dickinson should the two meet again in the Big Ten Tournament. However, Iowa will have to do a better job manufacturing offense in the moments when it can’t rely on Garza’s low-post prowess and his gravitational effect on the defense should they need to play without him for any meaningful length of time going forward, especially without a capable backup like Nunge on hand to take his place. Can Iowa protect Garza on defense to help keep him on the floor and out of foul trouble? If so, can they do it without sabotaging their defense, which relies heavily on Garza’s ability to protect the paint?
Iowa’s win over Ohio State, the program’s first road victory as a Top Ten team over another Top Ten opponent since 1989, shows that the Hawkeyes’ ceiling is still as high as any team in the country. Its colossally disappointing loss to Michigan only a few days earlier shows that its floor is still low enough to see the team bounced from the opening weekend of the NCAA Tournament yet again if it faces serious struggles on either end of the floor. The March Iowa fans have been dreaming of for decades is finally here. Whether they Hawkeyes can capitalize on the opportunities they’ve earned over the coming weeks will be largely determined by which Hawkeye team shows up: the team in black that was obliterated on Thursday, or the team in gold that looked every bit the title contender fans hoped they could be.