The Iowa point guard talks about what keeps him going during a trying season. Mark Emmert / The Register
COLUMBUS, Ohio — The Ohio State men’s basketball team has been using its preseason ranking as fuel this winter.
Picked by the media to finish 11th in the Big Ten Conference, the Buckeyes occupy first place after Saturday’s 82-64 beatdown of Iowa here.
The Hawkeyes, meanwhile, are in a tie for that 11th slot that had been allotted to Ohio State. Their fan base is growing increasingly agitated with poor defensive efforts, confounding roster management, a secretive contract extension for coach Fran McCaffery and, most of all, a 12-15 record with no hope for postseason play.
Iowa sophomore Jordan Bohannon was asked after Iowa’s latest loss whether the team could use naysaying fans as an excuse to rally together next year.
He doesn’t want to wait that long.
“Any outside motivation is going to help us,” Bohannon said after scoring 11 points against the Buckeyes. “But at the end of the day, it just depends on what’s inside of us and how hard we want to work to get a win.
“And that just comes down to fighting for every possession. At times this year we haven’t been doing that. We’ve been looking for the next possession or we’ve been hanging our heads on the last possession. The most important thing is the possession that’s going on right now. If we can just keep carrying on that mentality, something’s bound to happen by the end of the season.”
That seems like a dubious claim with only four regular-season games left. But credit Bohannon for keeping his head up, like a point guard should.
It was Bohannon who impulsively tweeted out “Relax” after the Hawkeyes fell behind by 20 points and dropped a dreadful 80-71 decision to Louisiana in the Cayman Islands on Nov. 20. His message was: “Things are going to get better.”
That was the Hawkeyes' first loss of the season, in a nearly empty gym in a game that wasn’t televised. And it looked very similar to Iowa’s 15th loss in front of a sold-out crowd at Value City Arena. It’s amazing how little has changed for Iowa in three months.
Iowa’s offense went stale first, and the defense quickly collapsed, surrendering large scoring runs that sealed its fate early in both games. And in many in between.
Junior forward Ahmad Wagner summed it up perfectly: “Our defense softened when we weren’t hitting shots. We’ve got to play tougher.”
McCaffery used his entire roster, trying in vain to find some spark somewhere, another pattern that has persisted well into February. The fact that he hasn’t settled on a rotation this late in the season is troubling.
McCaffery has used at least 10 Hawkeyes in every game but one. That was an 85-67 win over Wisconsin on Jan. 23 when his roster was depleted by injuries.
There’s no evidence that anything is going to change for Iowa in the next three weeks. That change must come in the offseason.
In the meantime, the players keep gamely answering the same questions.
“It’s never fun when you’re losing,” Wagner said. “But we try to stay positive.”
Bohannon said it seems like a year or two has passed since his Cayman Islands tweet. Some fans have never let him forget it. He won’t back away from it.
“I always feel like when I’m on Twitter, someone’s re-tweeting it,” he said. “I feel like we’re getting a little better in aspects of the game. We look really good at times. We look really bad at times.”
Still true, after all these games.
Iowa forward Tyler Cook had been on a tear in recent games, averaging 20.6 points over his past five. The Buckeyes took notice. His teammates didn’t help matters.
Ohio State had Jae’Sean Tate guarding Cook early in the game. Tate is a muscular senior, but at 6-foot-4, gives up 5 inches in height.
It took Iowa nearly six minutes to get Cook a shot over Tate, which he converted. Tate went to the bench for a breather, and the Buckeyes brought a frenzied triple-team at Cook the next time he touched the ball, stripping it away for one of his four turnovers.
Cook picked up two fouls in the first half, matching the number of shots he took. He scored the first basket of the second half to bring the Hawkeyes within 42-34. They never got closer.
“A lot of teams are coming with the double. They sent some guys on him,” McCaffery said after Cook was limited to eight points. “He’s an unselfish guy, so he’s going to move the ball.”
Bohannon said Ohio State did a good job of relocating Cook and then clogging up passing lanes.
“They had some physical dominance down low that they were able to push him off the block a little bit,” Bohannon said. “It was tough for me to try to get an entry pass from our transition game, which we’re used to doing.”
Iowa needed a big game from Cook to have any chance at an upset. Credit Ohio State’s coaching staff for not letting that happen.
But it also appeared the Hawkeyes didn’t do enough to try to get their leading scorer the ball.
Garza with one strong half
It didn’t help matters that Iowa’s other primary low-post options, freshman center Luka Garza and sophomore reserve Cordell Pemsl, also had trouble making an impact.
Garza had eight points in the first half, none thereafter. Pemsl finished with four points.
Garza says he doesn't feel fatigued, and the Buckeyes' home crowd didn't get to Iowa during its 82-64 loss Saturday; the team simply needs to "lock in." Mark Emmert / The Register
Garza said he noticed a shift in the Buckeye game plan after he was able to get to the offensive glass and convert in pick-and-roll situations in the first half.
“I saw when I was going to the rim there was a couple more people. They were helping out more. And specifically on the offensive glass, I could see they were trying to get me out of there,” he said.
“I still could have performed in the second half. I’m just disappointed in myself.”
Garza is having a strong rookie season, but is prone to being hard on himself. The mounting losses aren’t helping.
“A couple of these games are hanging on me, frustrating,” he admitted. “I’ve got to learn to let that go and remain confident. Keep learning, keep improving any way I can.
“It’s hard to sleep. You’re thinking about it. You wake up the next morning and try to forget about it.”
Wagner starts again
Ahmad Wagner started Iowa’s first five games, with his best performance in the final one, 11 points in a loss to South Dakota State. He injured his shoulder in that game, however, and had only started once more since then.
McCaffery put the native of Yellow Springs, Ohio, back in the lineup, not necessarily because Wagner was back in his home state, but because he wanted someone to try to lock down Buckeye star Keita Bates-Diop.
The junior forward says ‘the defense softened’ when shots stopped falling. Mark Emmert / The Register
Wagner, at 6-7, is considered the Hawkeyes’ best one-on-one defender. He didn’t get much of a chance to show it Saturday, being whistled for two fouls in the opening five minutes and heading to the bench for the duration of the first half.
“I was trying to bring a lot of energy and work and I was a little over-aggressive, the refs told me,” Wagner explained. “I’ve got to keep my hands out and use my chest more.”
Bates-Diop, the Big Ten’s leading scorer at 20.2 points per game, only had 14 against Iowa. But he also played just 26 minutes and appeared content to let his teammates go to work. In a competitive game, he undoubtedly would have been searching for his shot more.
Wagner played eight minutes in the second half and finished with two points and one rebound. He said it was an honor to start a game in his home state. It’s unclear if Nicholas Baer will reclaim that spot when Iowa visits Michigan on Wednesday.
Baer has seven points in 58 minutes in the past three games.
A bright spot? Yes, just one
McCaffery didn’t hesitate when asked if he saw anything he liked Saturday.
“Nunge. He was great,” the eighth-year Hawkeye leader said of freshman forward Jack Nunge.
Nunge had a career-high 18 points after scoring a total of 20 in all of January. He nailed his first shot, a smooth baseline jumper, grabbed three offensive rebounds and made all five of his free throws.
It was the second time Iowa had faced a top-tier Big Ten team and had a freshman be its best player. Garza had 19 points in a home loss to Purdue last month.
“He was aggressive. He was physical. They came after him,” McCaffery continued, speaking of Nunge. “They put smaller, quicker guys underneath him and he got low and really was strong and tough and made shots and made plays in traffic.”
Nunge said he never felt like he went away from what was working for him earlier in the season. But he also acknowledged that Big Ten play is a much greater challenge.
“I’m really trying to take advantage of the opportunities that I get and go out there and do anything the team needs,” Nunge said. “It’s a confidence-booster. Any time you can knock down your first shot and get a career high, it helps a lot.
“Big Ten play is tough. It’s obviously tougher than the start of the season and you’ve got to bring it every night. Otherwise, you’re not going to come out on top.”