The Iowa freshman says the team is focused on the task at hand. Mark Emmert / The Register
WASHINGTON, D.C. — Iowa guard Peter Jok missed two basketball games this year to rest his aching back.
In other games, his posture resembled a man three times his age.
But the good news for the Hawkeyes as they begin play in the Big Ten Conference Tournament here Thursday is that their senior star feels as fit as he has in years.
“I can play four games, 40 minutes (each),” Jok said Tuesday. “I feel fresh. It’s the end of the season. It’s my last year. I’ve got to give it all.”
Iowa (18-13, 10-8 Big Ten) opens against Indiana (17-14, 7-11) at 5:30 p.m. at the Verizon Center (ESPN2). The winner gets Wisconsin at 5:30 p.m. Friday. The Hawkeyes need to win both and make it to the weekend in order to assure an NCAA Tournament berth.
So there’s no better time to be rested, and Iowa certainly is that. Coach Fran McCaffery has used a deep rotation all winter. That’s a reflection of the talent on his roster, he has said repeatedly, but it also means no player has been overused.
The Hawkeyes and Hoosiers battle Thursday in Washington, D.C. Nicole Wiegand/The Register
Jok, the Big Ten’s leading scorer at 20.2 points per game, has played just 882 minutes. Freshman point guard Jordan Bohannon leads the team with 889, but ranks only 29th in the league at 73.2 percent of his team’s total minutes.
“It’s been really great, especially the way teams have been guarding me. They’re beating me up every night,” Jok said of his curtailed workload. “Just having depth and everybody playing a lot and having to play only 30 minutes (per game), it’s been really good for my body.”
The Hoosiers, with quick guards in James Blackmon Jr., Devonte Green and Robert Johnson, will test that depth. The teams combined for 186 points when they met at Carver-Hawkeye Arena two weeks ago. Iowa prevailed in overtime thanks to Jok’s school-record 22 free throws.
Bohannon is aware of the challenge in front of him. He has been a revelation for Iowa this season, putting up 9.8 points and 4.5 assists per game while becoming the only freshman in the country with at least 70 3-pointers and 140 assists. He hit the shot of the year to beat the Badgers on the road last Thursday.
Sports writers Chad Leistikow and Chris Cuellar take a look at Iowa's chances in the Big Ten Conference tournament and what it could mean for their chance at making the NCAA tournament.
But he also hit a lull during Big Ten play, he said, a period when the mental exhaustion more than the physical toll of his first college season caught up with him. He bottomed out in a 77-66 loss at Michigan State on Feb. 11, going scoreless for the only time this year.
“I think I was more burned out than anything,” Bohannon said. “I never felt that moment where, ‘Whoa, I’m out of shape. I can’t handle this anymore.’
“I’ve always worked really hard in the offseason just to be the most conditioned on the court at all times. And you kind of have to be that when you’re the point down. You can’t really break down.”
The Hawkeyes took Monday off after closing the regular season with a 90-79 home victory over Penn State, running their winning streak to four. Bohannon said that was enough to refresh him for the slog ahead, however long it lasts.
McCaffery, whose roster contains six freshmen, downplayed concerns about the youngsters hitting a wall at the end of the season.
“I’ve never seen it. I don’t think about it, don’t talk about it, don’t try to overanalyze it,” he said. “If a guy starts struggling, he’s struggling. It has nothing to do with how old he is.”
McCaffery also said he won’t be coaching this week thinking about keeping players fresh for the next game. The next game isn’t guaranteed in a single-elimination tournament.
“We’re going to do whatever we have to do to win that game that day,” he said. “I like having a lot of guys I can play because it gives me options. I can go big. I can go small. I can put my shooters in. I can put my athletes in and press.”
Ten Hawkeyes have played 400 or more minutes this season as McCaffery has searched for effective combinations. None have been more versatile than sophomore forward Nicholas Baer, the Big Ten’s sixth man of the year.
Baer has 235 points, 186 rebounds, 45 steals and 39 blocked shots. No wonder he is the Hawkeye most prone to tiring. He only knows one speed and doesn’t hesitate to ask for a breather when needed.
“If you’re playing Indiana, they’re a lot more run-and-gun and you’re going to get tired a little quicker,” Baer said. “It depends on how much we’re pressing, if I’m at the top of the press.
“If I’m tired, I’m not as beneficial for our team. We have plenty of guys who can come in for a couple of minutes while I sit. I don’t think about it too much. I just try to play as hard as I can as much as I can.”
Indiana coach Tom Crean also brings a rejuvenated team to D.C. The Hoosiers have lost six of their past eight games, but are getting healthy as March arrives. Blackmon and forward Juwan Morgan in particular have returned to form late in the season, combining for 33 points in 50 minutes during a 96-92 victory at Ohio State on Saturday.
“They don’t get their head down, and I think that’s the most important thing. We’ve had so many close games, including the one at Iowa. They may be dejected for a bit, they may be disappointed, but they don’t let discouragement kick in,” Crean said Monday of a team prone to narrow losses. “And what happens is we come back and we get better. I think all of these close games have helped us; they don’t really flinch, for a lack of a better term.”
A healthier Indiana team means an eight-player rotation. But even the Hoosiers can’t match Iowa body-for-body.
Bohannon is confident the Hawkeyes will eventually turn depth into a strength, especially if they can stretch their stay at this tournament into Saturday.
“When we’re playing 11 or 12 guys, and they’re all providing a spark, they’re all playing the same exact way that the starters are playing, it adds a different dimension to our team,” he said.
“And it makes the other team work a lot harder just to try to guard us.”