CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — If winning on the road is more about resilience than brilliance, as Iowa basketball coach Fran McCaffery believes, then Wednesday’s game at Illinois provides a perfect mid-term exam for the Hawkeyes.
Iowa has yet to show that it can recover when things turn sour in hostile environments, losing all four of its away games this season. The young Hawkeyes have gotten off on the wrong foot in two of the losses and failed to finish in the other two.
“Typically it comes down to the makeup of the individuals. We’ve played pretty well at times on the road. We haven’t put it together for 40 minutes against good teams like I would like to see. Certainly our last outing was forgettable,” McCaffery said Monday on a teleconference with reporters, referencing an 89-54 loss at Northwestern on Jan. 15.
ONLINE CHAT: Have questions? Get answers during the HawkCentral Facebook Chat at 11:30 a.m. Wednesday
“But I think you’ve got to go through that to understand start to finish what’s necessary.”
And what’s necessary for Iowa (11-9, 3-4 Big Ten Conference) is to outplay Illinois at the start and the finish in the 8 p.m. game being televised by the Big Ten Network.
The Hawkeyes have lost Big Ten road games at Purdue, Nebraska and Northwestern. In each game, McCaffery has been forced to call timeout in the opening minutes after his team fell behind. Only against Nebraska did he get the response he was seeking. That game ended up lasting two overtimes.
The early-game doldrums have grown so alarming for McCaffery that he admitted he is thinking of making a change in his starting lineup. That unit has been senior Peter Jok surrounded by freshmen Jordan Bohannon, Tyler Cook, Isaiah Moss and Cordell Pemsl.
Illinois (12-8, 2-5) counters with three seniors in its starting group, led by guard Malcolm Hill (17.8 points per game).
But the Illini have struggled to defend this year, ranking 13th in the Big Ten by allowing opponents to make 44.5 percent of their field goals. Iowa is one spot above at 43.6 percent.
The Hawkeyes haven’t played since losing their first league home game, 84-76 to Maryland on Thursday. That gave Iowa its first back-to-back defeats since a four-game slide in late November and early December. It also means the Hawkeyes need to get a road win somewhere to make up for that home loss if they want to stay in a crowded field in the middle of the league standings.
This is that chance.
Big Ten teams have gone 18-30 on the road this winter, a 37.5 winning percentage that reflects the parity in league play. Iowa is one of four teams still seeking a first conference win away from home (Illinois, Michigan and Rutgers are the others).
That’s the next step McCaffery spoke about. And whoever he starts, the key will be finding five players who can end games with poise and energy. That’s especially challenging when his rotation goes 11 deep, McCaffery acknowledged.
“That takes time for all those guys to develop the confidence necessary to compete successfully and understand how to play together on the road,” he said.
The good news for Iowa is that Jok was able to get two days of rest over the weekend, a little time to get past an illness and an aching back that limited him in the losses to Northwestern and Maryland. The Big Ten’s leading scorer at 21.6 points per game, Jok is vital to Iowa’s fortunes.
Also expected back is Hawkeye junior forward Dom Uhl, who has missed the past two games with a bruised thumb on his shooting hand. Junior guard Dale Jones returned to log four minutes against Maryland after being out 16 games with a broken wrist. And sophomore guard Christian Williams has recovered from an illness that limited him to two minutes in the Maryland game, McCaffery said on his radio show Monday evening.
That gives McCaffery all the options he could want Wednesday, for the first time in a long time. That also means players who come off the bench will have to prove they’re ready to compete right away or risk being removed from the game. That’s a great deal of pressure, McCaffery conceded.
“You’re kind of weighing the sense of fairness on the front end to the sense of reality on the back end,” he said. “If I see a spot for a certain guy, get him in there.”
Ultimately, though, it will come down to Iowa’s starting backcourt of Jok and rookie point guard Bohannon. They need to work together to help the Hawkeyes survive any bumpy patches, McCaffery said, especially at the beginning of each half.
“I would probably put it more on (Bohannon) and Pete both, to understand, ‘Hey guys, maybe we get it inside and get fouled. Maybe we drive it to the basket and get fouled and make a couple free throws and then we can change defenses,’” McCaffery said.
“To change the rhythm of how the game’s going. Because the rhythm hasn’t been good.”
The Iowa senior has been slowed with back pain in Iowa's last two games, scoring a combined 14 points.