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5 storylines as Iowa men’s basketball passes the halfway mark

The Hawkeyes are firmly not on the bubble but plenty of opportunity to work their way there

NCAA Basketball: Iowa at Creighton Steven Branscombe-USA TODAY Sports

The Iowa Hawkeyes sit at 10-6 overall and 2-3 in conference, which marks the exact halfway point among guaranteed games they get to play. With a date with the Minnesota Golden Gophers (12-4. 3-2) coming up, it makes sense to take stock of existing storylines as we come out of the post-football haze.

Owen Freeman leads the pack for Big Ten Freshman of the Year

In my estimation, the biggest bright spot of the season so far has been the play of freshman forward Owen Freeman. Through 16 games, he’s averaging 11.1 points, 5.9 rebounds, & 1.9 blocks on 65.8% shooting. He’s won five freshmen of the week awards so far this season, which is over half of the awards it’s been given out.

Most encouraging are the numbers he’s amassing through five conference games, as he’s at 12.4 points and 7.0 rebounds, starting four games. His overall activity on defense is a breath of fresh air for a Fran McCaffery-led team, as he provides activity every time that side of the court. His lateral quickness allows Iowa double ball-screens aggressively while being able to recover well. As the rim protector when Iowa goes zone, he can serve as a deterrent Iowa hasn’t had since at least Adam Woodbury. His 1.9 blocks per game rank 5th in the conference.

There are the normal growing pains - he got burned on a couple mid-post plays against Nebraska when he over-committed to defending the entry pass - but way more good than bad for the freshman out of Moline, IL. He’s one of three Big Ten freshman to average over 10 PPG and neither Cam Christie (Minnesota) nor Mackenzi Mgbako (Indiana) match his efficiency. He would be the first Hawkeye under Fran to win the award.

Ben Krikke leads a balanced offensive output

Krikke’s transfer from Valparaiso has been incredibly important as the Hawkeyes rode strong early season performances from him and a veteran presence as conference play comes into focus. A stretch against Nebraska saw him score seven quick points as the Cornhuskers tied it up in the second. It’s great having a big like that where baskets can be had with a high confidence.

Payton Sandfort & Tony Perkins are the Hawkeyes’ other two double-digit scorers and, if Perkins can continue distributing like he did against the Huskers (15 assists was one off a program record) then he’ll have fully transformed into a valuable PG. Sandfort’s 40.1% from 3 is second in the conference and he’s been an excellent all around player (14.5 points and team high 7.1 rebounds).

The X-factor will be Iowa’s fifth starter - Patrick McCaffery. His best game was also on Friday against Nebraska but has been incredibly up-and-down and his absence against Rutgers (Iowa’s previous best game) led to the normal negativity which has accompanied his time in the black and gold. If Iowa gets who they got Friday, they can play with anyone in this league but if his energy and effort wane, it can go off the rails with his lackadaisical defense (not unique among Fran-coached players) and YOLO drives on offense.

No opportunities have been cashed in

From a team perspective, Iowa haven’t had any resume-building wins. They’re 0-5 in Q1 games (@ Creighton, Oklahoma (neutral), @ Purdue, @ ISU, @ Wisconsin) and 2-2 in Q2 games. That’s not gonna get this bunch into the tournament in this season. As it stands, there are 6 Q1 opportunities available with the following three at Carver-Hawkeye Arena: Purdue (1/20), Wisconsin (2/17), & Illinois (3/10).

One thing to monitor, though, is Iowa’s other neutral site opponent (Seton Hall) has notched some huge wins of their own en route to a 5-1 start in the Big East (UConn, Marquette, and Butler) and, right now, are the Hawkeyes best victory. Iowa’s other Q2 victory was Friday night against Nebraska in their best performance of the season.

No irreconcilable losses just yet

The flipside of Iowa not notching any big wins is that they haven’t had any cratering defeats to their tourney hopes. Right now, Michigan is their worst loss, which came at the end of a rough six-day gauntlet where they lost the aforementioned road games to Purdue & ISU. Tack on Iowa’s loss to Michigan (12/2) and that’s about as bad as it gets in eight days.

However, Iowa gets the opportunity to rectify that loss in a couple weeks at the Crisler Center and more importantly, their three game skid doesn’t touch the low point of last year’s with a nine-point home loss to Eastern Illinois (351 in NET last year!), 16-point loss at Nebraska, and 4-point loss at Penn State.

Minnesota (93 in NET) is among the weakest opponents remaining on the schedule, and Iowa gets them twice. Maryland (98) & Penn State (116) are also remaining home & homes which will either boost Iowa’s win total or serve as a bogey come Selection Sunday.

Fran McCaffery wins totals surpassing Dr. Tom Davis’ tenure

Iowa’s 14-year head man has gone 271-182 overall & 128-121 in conference during his time here. Against Rutgers, Fran’s 270th win set him as the school leader in overall wins while a win tonight would put him over the top of Dr. Tom, who sits with 128.

There have been ups & downs in Fran’s tenure but his ability to stick around this long speaks volumes to his ability to turn Iowa around after a wretched three-year stretch under Todd Lickliter and continually keep the Hawkeyes in the mix with solid regular season showings. The Hawks have been under .500 just twice in his tenure and made 7 out of the last 9 NCAA Tournaments.