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No. 3 Hawkeyes are about to get tested on defense by a trio of talented point guards

Mark Emmert
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY, Ia. — The Iowa men’s basketball team is about to find out whether its perimeter defense is equipped to deny dribble penetration by top-flight point guards.

It’s a question that must be answered in the affirmative if the No. 3 Hawkeyes (3-0) are really to be considered contenders for a national championship.

On Tuesday, freshman Caleb Love leads No. 14 North Carolina (3-1) into Carver-Hawkeye Arena for a 6:30 p.m. game that will be a marquee offering on ESPN. On Dec. 19, the Hawkeyes will have to contend with Gonzaga rookie Jalen Suggs, one of the nation’s most dynamic young players. And don’t overlook a Christmas matchup at Minnesota, where Marcus Carr awaits with a retooled Gophers lineup.

It’s a December gauntlet that is precisely what Iowa guards such as CJ Fredrick and Joe Toussaint have been training for all summer and fall.

“I’m extremely excited,” Fredrick said Monday of the chance to tangle with perennial ACC power North Carolina. “You sign up to play these kinds of games. You sign up to play against these kind of players.”

Fredrick, at 6-foot-3, gives the Hawkeyes some length and tenacity on the perimeter. The redshirt sophomore said he came from a high school program (Covington Catholic in Kentucky) that emphasized defense and he’s grown quicker and stronger in his college years with the goal of harassing players like Love, Suggs and Carr.

Joe Toussaint is Iowa's quickest guard, with 40 steals in his first 34 college games. His defense will be one of the keys for the No. 3 Hawkeyes as they start to tangle with elite point guards like North Carolina's Caleb Love.

More:The decade-old encounter that helped steer CJ Fredrick to Fran McCaffery and Iowa basketball

Love was a McDonald’s All-American as a senior at Christian Brothers high school in St. Louis. At 6-4, he is regarded as someone with the NBA in his near future. But it hasn’t been the smoothest introduction to the college game for Love, who is leading the Tar Heels in shots attempted with 51, while making only 27.5% of them, with more turnovers (13) than assists (10).

Alongside Love is R.J. Davis, who is averaging 12.3 points and leads North Carolina in 3-pointers with six makes in 13 attempts. Davis is also a freshman from White Plains, New York.

That is where Toussaint, a native of the Bronx, became a friend and frequent opponent. The Iowa sophomore knows Davis well and can look him square in the eye as both stand just 6 feet tall.

“He’s just very smooth and very crisp in his handles. He’s very creative. He’s a very skilled player,” Toussaint said of Davis.

Earlier:New Hawkeye point guard Toussaint brings Big Apple mentality to Iowa City

Like Fredrick, Toussaint will be a key to Iowa’s defensive improvement on the perimeter. Toussaint is the quickest Hawkeye, with four steals this season after leading the team with 36 a year ago. If any Iowa player can stay in front of the likes of Love and Davis, it is Toussaint, who has become devoted to film study in his second year on campus.

Toussaint said he starts scouting opposing guards two or three days ahead of time, watching clips of them in action before going to sleep, when first waking up, before practice and after practice. He looks to see what their go-to moves are, whether they prefer to drive to their right or their left, how they handle ball-screen actions.

“I don’t take it personal,” Toussaint said of his defensive assignments. “I’m just ready to play, ready to win. That’s why I’m here. I’m here to win.”

Fredrick, who starts, and Toussaint, who comes off the bench, can both help Iowa win primarily with their ability to anticipate where opposing guards want to move and beating them to that spot. Fredrick is an accomplished long-range shooter (46.4% from the 3-point arc). Toussaint is a fearless driver.

But Iowa led the Big Ten Conference in offensive efficiency a year ago, while ranking 12th on defense in Ken Pomeroy’s analytics. It’s clear where the improvement must happen if the Hawkeyes are to enter the ranks of college basketball’s elite teams.

Hawkeyes coach Fran McCaffery is banking on getting results because of the experience level of his players. He starts a fifth-year senior at point guard (Jordan Bohannon), fourth-year players in the frontcourt (Luka Garza and Connor McCaffery) and third-year players on the wings (Fredrick and Joe Wieskamp). He brings Toussaint and fourth-year player Jack Nunge off his bench. All seven have started at various times in their careers.

“You've got veteran guys that understand scouting reports,” McCaffery said. “They understand who's got the ball, being in the gaps, how to play ball screens, how to play in transition when there's more space, how to change into other defenses effectively.”

That will be an advantage all year for Iowa, which ranks 71st in the nation in defensive efficiency after three blowout wins. The Hawkeyes were 97th a year ago.

Are Love and Davis ready to exploit college players three and four years older? What about Suggs, who is averaging 13.3 points, 6.3 assists and 2.3 steals for top-ranked Gonzaga?

Iowa guard CJ Fredrick (5) is introduced before a NCAA non-conference men's basketball game, Friday, Nov. 27, 2020, at Carver-Hawkeye Arena in Iowa City, Iowa.

Carr is 21 years old and set Minnesota’s single-season assist record with 207 a year ago, when he was third-team all-Big Ten. He is adjusting to a new supporting cast but has led the Gophers to a 4-0 start while averaging 26.5 points per game.

These are the point guards on December’s menu for Iowa. Things won’t get easier when the calendar turns to 2021.

Fredrick is eager to see how the Hawkeye guards measure up, starting Tuesday against North Carolina.

“They’ve got really quick guards. They can score it. They’re versatile. They’re long,” Fredrick said.

“We’re going to need to keep them in front of us, just make them take tough shots.”

Mark Emmert covers the Iowa Hawkeyes for the Register. Reach him at memmert@registermedia.com or 319-339-7367. Follow him on Twitter at @MarkEmmert.