The Iowa coach tells what he liked about Luka Garza and Maishe Dailey’s performances. Mark Emmert/The Register
GEORGE TOWN, Cayman Islands — Iowa coaches and players all disputed that they were a “desperate” team heading into Wednesday’s finale of the Cayman Islands Classic.
But back-to-back sobering losses clearly had led to some soul-searching. Point guard Jordan Bohannon called a team meeting Monday to try to chart a course for improvement and to emphasize to a young team how important early-season matchups can be when the NCAA Tournament selection committee starts looking for its field of 68.
Coach Fran McCaffery pulled forward Tyler Cook aside for a one-on-one chat to implore his star sophomore forward to open up his offensive arsenal.
It worked for a day, as Bohannon and Cook led a spectacular Hawkeye offensive display in a 95-85 victory over Alabama-Birmingham at John Gray Gymnasium. Iowa secured seventh place in the eight-team field as a result. Not what the Hawkeyes wanted, but much better than the alternative.
Bohannon, a sophomore point guard, said the team meeting was prompted by a remembrance of what happened at this time a year ago. Iowa lost both of its games in a Thanksgiving tournament in Florida.
“We wanted to try and get on course this year and not let that happen. Because if we won one of those games down there it probably would have changed us to an NCAA team,” Bohannon said. “It’s really important these games we play now.”
It says a lot about Bohannon’s leadership that he was already taking the long view on this season, looking ahead to March after the Hawkeyes were barely on the wrong side of the NCAA Tournament bubble last year. This week’s losses to Louisiana and South Dakota State have already put Iowa in a serious bind when it comes to RPI. A third loss to a mid-major probably would have been devastating.
Bohannon, who scored 30 points Wednesday, said he felt the need to speak up because he’s trying to fill the shoes of last year’s senior leader, Peter Jok, and also because the starting point guard naturally has the ears of a basketball team.
He said he is still in continual communication with Jok, including after Tuesday’s loss. He described Jok as playing a “big brother role.”
“Me being the point guard, I need to make sure this team runs as smooth as possible to get to our ultimate goal,” Bohannon said.
The Iowa forward also showed off a nifty left-handed hook in Wednesday’s win. Mark Emmert/The Register
Cook gets the message
Cook had scored a relatively quiet 17 points in Iowa’s two losses when his coach summoned him for a little pep talk.
“I really understood what I needed to do,” Cook said after that meeting. “Just making sure that I’m going to take advantage of everything I have, all my tools physically, being able to communicate, making myself available to our guards, especially Jordan. He had a tough week being the only point guard we have.”
Cook was calling for the ball all game, including one sequence when he waived teammate Maishe Dailey to the other side of the court so he could isolate a Blazer defender and power past him for a layup.
Cook scored a career-high 29 points on 8-of-11 shooting. He converted 13 of his 16 free throws, also a career-high.
And his offense wasn’t all within five feet of the basket. Cook pivoted for three left-handed hook shots that fell through the net cleanly, the last one from 12 feet out.
“They kept playing me for my right hand so I just kept going back to my left hand. That’s the advantage of being able to use both,” Cook said. “It’s always hard to play guys like that. It’s kind of hard to keep remembering, ‘He can go both ways.’”
The Iowa freshman talks about a bounceback game and a big three-point play late. Mark Emmert/The Register
Garza back with authority
As quiet as Cook had been, freshman center Luka Garza had been an even bigger enigma in Iowa’s opening two games here.
The 6-foot-11 banger had no points Monday and only four Tuesday, losing his confidence in the process, he admitted.
The Garza of old reappeared Wednesday, scoring 14 points, wrangling a team-high seven rebounds and swatting away three shots against a muscular UAB frontcourt. He was feeling so good about things that he barked for the ball in the final minute with the Hawkeyes ahead only 88-85, making a basket through contact and hitting the ensuing free throw to essentially seal the win.
“He was really smart (Wednesday), efficient with everything he did, no wasted energy,” McCaffery said. “We went to him in crunch time. He wanted the ball and he made a terrific and-one.”
Garza held up for 29 minutes, and was in a much better mood afterward.
“I came out and I played as myself. I wasn’t thinking too much. Those first two games I was overthinking and just being out of character a little bit,” he said.
“I wasn’t playing with the same confidence, so I had to get back to that. When I play (that way) it just seems like the ball is drawn to me, off the rebound, off the glass.”
The sophomore guards says Jordan Bohannon gathered the team together to chart a course for improvement. Mark Emmert/The Register
Dailey's finest hour
As one true freshman rose, another found the going tough. That’s the nature of rookies.
Jack Nunge got his first career start when Ahmad Wagner couldn’t go because of a sore left shoulder. McCaffery called that injury “day to day.”
Nunge had been a bright spot for Iowa in the first two games, but didn’t have it Wednesday. He missed all three of his shot attempts and played only 14 minutes.
“He got a little sideways early. They got up underneath him and he missed a couple shots he normally makes. I thought he got down on himself a little bit,” McCaffery said.
“He hasn’t really done anything wrong since he got here. He’s been terrific. So he had an off game? You’ve got to learn from that and keep being aggressive.”
Fortunately for Iowa, Dailey was ready to turn in his best game so far. The sophomore played 20 minutes, at the top of Iowa’s press and guarding Blazer point guards. Dailey made all four of his first-half free throws, which got McCaffery’s attention. And he buried a big 3-pointer from the right corner late to push the Hawkeye lead to 77-69.
“I thought defensively he was terrific. He was active,” McCaffery said. “The big play at the end when they were pressing us, he comes back and gives us another handler. But he was in the right place all the time, played like a veteran even though he doesn’t have a lot of experience.”
Dailey forced junior Brady Ellingson to the bench as well. The backup guard logged only 6 minutes and failed to score in all three games here. Dailey may be in the process of taking his spot.
“I just really locked in and did whatever the team needed me to do. And (Wednesday) it was just defense. I sat down and guarded the point guard,” Dailey said.
Iowa’s point guard explains what was on his mind when he advised everyone to "relax." Mark Emmert/The Register
Who are you telling to relax?
Finally, it’s time to address a rather pointed tweet that Bohannon sent out Monday.
“Relax,” Bohannon admonished someone after the Hawkeyes had played a miserable first half earlier in the day and lost their first game, 80-71, against Louisiana.
It echoed a famous message that Green Bay Packers star quarterback Aaron Rodgers had for fans who were barking about the team’s 1-2 start in 2014.
Bohannon’s tweet got a lot of attention from Iowa fans as well, many of whom assumed it was aimed at them. It didn’t help when the Hawkeyes followed that up with another loss Tuesday.
“My brothers probably weren’t happy that I tweeted it,” said Bohannon, whose three older brothers also played Division I basketball. “I’m kind of a guy that I don’t really care what the outside says. We’re just going to worry about ourselves.”
So who was the tweet for?
“Honestly, I was playing cards with my teammates and we were playing euchre and my partner Austin Ash was getting a little frustrated, so I guess it was kind of directed to him because he was kind of being a psycho,” Bohannon said, speaking of the team’s walk-on guard.
“We actually played (again Tuesday) night and we ended up winning, so maybe the tweet worked.”