Hawkeyes struggling to stay close in Big Ten games — and mighty Michigan State is next

Mark Emmert
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY, Ia. — Luka Garza has noticed an unusual pattern in his first year of college basketball.

There are no “average” games for the Iowa Hawkeyes this season. They either fall far behind early and get routed. Or, less frequently, they grab an early lead and are able to keep opponents from chipping away.

Iowa (12-13, 3-9 Big Ten Conference) has been involved in only one game this season decided by five points or less. It’s been a consistently inconsistent winter and doesn’t get any easier with No. 4 Michigan State (22-3, 10-2) coming in to Carver-Hawkeye Arena for an 8 p.m. tipoff Tuesday on ESPN.

“You can tell that’s been a trial for us,” Garza said of trying to stay close in games against top-tier league opponents. “We get there. We climb ourselves back, and they just go on a run. It kills us. We can’t let that happen. We’ve got to know, once we cut a lead down, we did the hardest part.”

Iowa freshman Luka Garza, reacting after knocking the ball out of bounds in a win over Minnesota, knows his team must start fast to have a chance at upsetting No. 4 Michigan State on Tuesday. The Hawkeyes have been in remarkably few close games this season.

The Hawkeyes also hosted a top-five team Jan. 20 and never tested Purdue in an 87-64 loss. They are coming off an 82-58 shellacking at Penn State on Saturday. They’ve lost five other conference games by 11 or more points.

When they’re bad, they’re awful.

And yet, Iowa’s past two Tuesday home games have resulted in wins over Wisconsin and Minnesota by a combined 32 points. The Hawkeyes were terrific at the start of both contests and led virtually the whole way.

“When we come out hard and strong like that, it gives us confidence,” Garza said.

The Spartans are built to destroy confidence, however. They start four sophomores and a freshman who all have professional futures, led by Miles Bridges, who averages 17.4 points per game. They are 4-1 on the road and are accustomed to playing in — and winning — tight games.

Michigan State leads the Big Ten in shooting percentage (51.5 percent) and in field goal defense (35.4).

The Spartans’ starting five is as good as any team in the country, Iowa coach Fran McCaffery said.

Iowa will try to keep pace, with sophomore point guard Jordan Bohannon again limited by an illness. Bohannon was sick Saturday and tied his season-low by scoring only three points.

McCaffery said Bohannon appeared to be getting better Sunday but had a setback Monday and was held out of practice and away from his teammates.

Bohannon is being backed up by Maishe Dailey, a 6-foot-7 wing player who is still acclimating to being a college point guard and averages 1.4 assists per game. Junior guard Brady Ellingson is expected back after missing four games with a concussion and could also help run the point if Bohannon is limited.

“We need all the guards we can get,” McCaffery said.

Dailey played 26 minutes at Penn State with mixed results. He had four points but also three turnovers. He missed his only 3-pointer but is a 40.4 percent shooter from the arc this season, second on the team to Bohannon with only one-third as many attempts.

“It is difficult when we lose the best shooter in the country, Jordan. But we’ll be fine,” Dailey said Monday.

“People have been telling me I should be taking more (3-pointers). When I watch film, I see spots and points in the game where I drive and pass up open shots.”

Dailey is trying to alter his “pass-first” mindset. He recalled that as a sophomore at Beachwood High School in Ohio he even averaged more assists than points.

And now, he’s being asked to shoot more while also learning the nuances of life as a point guard.

“I have to watch secondary defenders and watch people on this side of the floor when I’m coming off a pick-and-roll on that side,” Dailey said, gesturing to the Carver-Hawkeye court. “I have to watch people’s eyes and all that in a matter of two dribbles.”

Dailey could give Iowa a needed lift with outside scoring. He also figures to be looking for forward Tyler Cook in the low post. The sophomore is having the best stretch of play in his young career, averaging 17.1 points and 7.6 rebounds in Big Ten games, with five double-doubles.

It will also help if the Hawkeyes can rush out to a big early lead as they did against Wisconsin and Minnesota. That was a stark contrast to what happened vs. Purdue.

“I don’t think we were totally locked in when we came into the game, and we saw the consequence of that. We didn’t have the heart and effort that was needed to make that game a game,” Garza said of the Purdue outing, when he led the team with 19 points but was the only Hawkeye in double figures. “They blew us out of the water and we didn’t show that much fight like we needed to have.

“So that definitely provides motivation for this game.”

The Hawkeyes would take a big step just by staying close to the Spartans. Accomplish that, and then they can start thinking about an upset along the lines of the last time Michigan State visited Carver-Hawkeye. That team was ranked No. 1, and fell 83-70 here on Dec. 29, 2015.

“I think you have to look at this team and say, ‘Look, we're in the same conference as they are,’” McCaffery said of facing the Spartans.

“We'd better be as physical as they are. We'd better be as tough as they are.”