Three keys for Hawkeyes to get back in Big Ten Conference race

Mark Emmert
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY, Ia. — The Iowa men’s basketball team enters the new year on a five game-winning streak.

And a two-game losing streak.

It’s the confidence built in the former that will be needed to address the latter.

The Hawkeyes are re-entering Big Ten Conference play by hosting Michigan at 6 p.m. Tuesday (ESPN2). That game officially begins the second half of a season for Iowa (9-6, 0-2) that has been marked by injuries, stretches of careless play and ultimately a record-tying passing performance in Iowa’s last outing.

“I think we’re better collectively. Our defense is better. Not where it needs to be, but better,” Iowa coach Fran McCaffery said after Friday’s 98-75 victory over Northern Illinois. “We’re handling the ball better, we’re rebounding, we’re sharing it. We’ve got a lot of productivity from a lot of different people. So I feel a lot better about where we are.”

Iowa's Maishe Dailey reacts as he draws a foul during the Hawkeyes' game against Nothern Illinois at Carver-Hawkeye Arena on Friday, Dec. 29, 2017.

There’s no question Iowa has been playing its best basketball of the season in the past five games. The Hawkeyes averaged 90.2 points in those contests, shooting 51.9 percent from the field and 71.9 percent from the free-throw line. The team averaged 23.4 assists and only 12 turnovers while outrebounding opponents by 9.8 per game.

“We’re starting games a lot better,” Iowa guard Jordan Bohannon said after the Hawkeyes ran out to a 16-2 lead against the Huskies. “We’ve been bouncing back when teams are making runs, and that was something we didn’t do earlier in the season. Teams would go on runs, and we would just lay down.”

It’s certainly a confident group of Hawkeyes that has emerged after a four-game losing streak. But the stakes get much higher and the opponents much tougher in the next two months. It’s hard to forget what happened the first time Iowa faced Big Ten opposition —a pair of disappointing efforts in losses to Penn State and Indiana in a three-day stretch a month ago.

It started with sloppy ball-handling. Iowa had 33 assists against 36 turnovers in the Big Ten losses, staggering numbers for a team built around offensive efficiency. The Hawkeyes had 34 assists against Northern Illinois alone, tying a mark achieved only once before in program history — in 1984 against George Mason.

Iowa ranks third in the nation in assists at 19.7 per game. That’s a winning number, and it starts with the Hawkeyes’ two best players — Bohannon and forward Tyler Cook — not committing turnovers. In Iowa’s two Big Ten losses, those sophomores committed a total of eight turnovers apiece under unrelenting pressure. That statistic may explain the Hawkeyes’ poor play as well as any.

“I think we are better with ball security. We’ve done a really good job of controlling the ball and getting it to where we want it,” said freshman center Luka Garza, who is leading Iowa with 16 points per game during the win streak. “We need to continue to do that and play unselfish, just moving the ball around, spreading the floor. We’re going to be hard to beat if we’re playing like we did (Friday).”

Free-throw shooting can be another big edge for the Hawkeyes, who rank ninth in the nation with 349 trips to the line. But they’ve made only 66.5 percent of those attempts and were at a paltry 56.7 percent in their two Big Ten losses.

Michigan (12-3, 1-1), meanwhile, ranks seventh nationally in fewest fouls per game at 14.6.

Iowa’s post players — particularly Cook and Garza — need to be aggressive inside and try to get a thin Wolverine frontcourt into foul trouble. And then they need to make those free throws when they get chances.

Garza is shooting 78.1 percent from the line in the past five games, a sign that the 6-foot-11 rookie may have figured out his troubles from early in the season. Cook gets to the line more than any Hawkeye, with 86 attempts already. He is making 69.8 percent of them, but can do better. In close games, this performance can be the difference between a win and a loss.

Finally, Iowa may have uncovered the missing ingredient during its five-game win streak. That would be sophomore guard Maishe Dailey, who is now Bohannon’s primary backup after Connor McCaffery had a tonsillectomy last week.

Dailey was a forgotten role player the last time the Hawkeyes played Big Ten games, scoring only three points in the two losses.

He’s averaging 8.2 points in the past five games, the same as Bohannon. Dailey has 10 assists against two turnovers in those contests. He’s becoming a vocal leader and is a rangy defender at 6-7.

Dailey’s emergence was the biggest positive development for the Hawkeyes in the first half of the season. You can see his confidence growing with each drive to the basket.

“Coach is trusting me to handle the ball more,” Dailey said. “I feel ready for it.”

This is the recipe Iowa must follow to get back into the Big Ten race — limit turnovers, make a higher percentage of free throws, trust Dailey more as a third option in the backcourt.

Bohannon said the Hawkeyes are still searching for their identity. They’re about to find out what it is.

“Probably some more adversity is going to have to be thrown your way to really figure out who you are,” Bohannon said. “It’s all a process. It’s not going to happen in one day.”