Hawkeyes can't measure up to Wolverines, but keep faith heading into home stretch

Mark Emmert
Hawk Central

ANN ARBOR, Mich. — The Iowa men’s basketball team is now 0-for-4 against the best competition it has seen this winter, the latest a 79-57 drubbing at Michigan on Thursday that left the visiting team believing it can still stack up if it puts a complete game together.

“We’ve had stretches where we’re really good and we’ve failed to keep that up. In the Big Ten, you’re playing a team that can beat anybody every single time and so we’ve proved ourselves as one of the best in the country,” Hawkeye center Luka Garza said.

“We know we have to be better.”

No one will dispute that last statement. No. 12 Iowa (17-7, 11-6 Big Ten) had its worst shooting game of the season and combined that with poor second-half defense to suffer its most humbling loss. The No. 3 Wolverines (17-1, 12-1) showed why they are the class of the league so far, outscoring the Hawkeyes 26-11 in the final 12 minutes.

Earlier:Iowa Hawkeyes men's basketball team a national title contender? Believe it, because they sure do

ANN ARBOR, MICHIGAN - FEBRUARY 25: Jack Nunge #2 of the Iowa Hawkeyes is helped off the court during the first half against the Michigan Wolverines at Crisler Arena on February 25, 2021 in Ann Arbor, Michigan. (Photo by Nic Antaya/Getty Images)

Adding injury to insult for Iowa, backup center Jack Nunge left the Crisler Center on crutches with the health of his right leg a serious concern, and starting forward Connor McCaffery didn’t play after turning his ankle in the second half.

Iowa coach Fran McCaffery said an MRI on Friday will reveal the extent of Nunge’s injury. He said his son, Connor, lobbied to come back into the game but he decided against that. He is hopeful Connor will be ready to play at No. 4 Ohio State on Sunday.

That game is the Hawkeyes’ final regular-season chance to earn a win that would show they’re worthy of being mentioned among the nation’s top teams. They haven’t done so yet.

Iowa lost to No. 1 Gonzaga 99-88 on Dec. 19, fell 80-75 at Illinois (currently No. 7 in Ken Pomeroy’s analytics) on Jan. 29, and blew an 11-point lead at home before falling 89-85 against Ohio State (No. 6) on Feb. 4. Iowa remains fifth in the Pomeroy standings, but that feels like a long way from the top after seeing what happened Thursday.

More:No. 3 Michigan 79, No. 12 Iowa 57: Here's what we learned

For subscribers:Postgame Hoops Podcast: Michigan 79, Iowa 57

The Hawkeyes made only 21 of 59 shots (35.6%) against the most efficient defense they’ve faced this season (again, according to the Pomeroy rankings). They had a mere four assists against nine turnovers, staggering numbers for a team that typically moves the basketball better than anyone in the nation. The 57 points were a season-low.

You might think those numbers suggest something was amiss with Iowa’s offense, which is second in the nation in efficiency.

“It wasn’t dysfunction,” Fran McCaffery said tersely, brushing aside any criticism of his team after it had its four-game winning streak snapped.

He did not offer an alternate description.

Garza, as is his custom, shouldered the blame for the sputtering offense. The nation’s leading scorer went 6-for-19 from the field, often appearing to rush his shots. He finished with 16 points.

“I was working for position. I was able to create good shots, but they were just rolling out on me,” Garza said.

“Those are shots I normally make, easy shots for me, shots I practice all the time. There was no shot out there I felt like I couldn’t make.”

Iowa's three captains -- Luka Garza (left), Jordan Bohannon and Joe Wieskamp -- look on glumly as Michigan puts the finishing touches on a 79-57 win Thursday at the Crisler Center. The Hawkeyes were outscored 26-11 down the stretch and lost for the first time in five games.

Iowa point guard Jordan Bohannon entered the game eyeing Hawkeye history, three assists away from breaking Jeff Horner’s record for most in a career. Instead, he was held without an assist for the first time all season. Bohannon was the only Hawkeye to make more than one 3-pointer (he went 2-for-6), but gamely tried to claim that one of his misses was a turning point in the contest.

Bohannon left a 3-pointer short with Iowa trailing 45-39 and 14 minutes, 34 seconds remaining. Michigan’s Eli Brooks canned his lone 3-pointer of the game at the other end of the court. It’s true that the Hawkeyes never got that close again, but there were signs the game was already slipping away.

Iowa had held its previous five opponents below 70 points; none had shot better than 40% from the field. Michigan had only 32 points at halftime. But the Hawkeye defense couldn’t keep pace this time, especially with the offense struggling. The Wolverines went 19 of 35 after intermission (54.3%) to put up 47 points, the most Iowa had allowed in a half since that home loss to the Buckeyes.

Garza and Bohannon both said that the trouble on offense eventually took a toll on Iowa’s defensive effort.

“We battled for 24 minutes, honestly, and that’s disappointing. We should have battled for 40 minutes,” Garza said. “That’s something that we haven’t been doing as much when we’re missing shots. We’ve been cranking it up on defense.”

The game swung when McCaffery went to a three-freshman lineup after a Joe Wieskamp dunk had cut Michigan’s lead to 53-46 with 11:59 remaining. Keegan Murray showed he belonged on a big stage, finishing with seven points, six rebounds and a blocked shot. But Michigan quickly victimized Patrick McCaffery and Ahron Ulis, who combined for zero points and three turnovers, and went on a 9-0 run to pull away for good. It underscored the value of Nunge and Connor McCaffery to this team if it hopes to become the title contender it believes itself to be.

Iowa's Jordan Bohannon drives to the basket against Michigan's Mike Smith during the first half at Crisler Arena on Feb. 25, 2021, in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

Bohannon finished with 13 points. He, too, felt the Hawkeyes were taking shots they normally would make and wasn’t concerned that Thursday’s loss made any kind of statement about the limitations of his team.

“We fell short a couple times, but we’re playing in a global pandemic. We’ve all sacrificed a lot for our team to be here,” Bohannon said.

“I think we did a good job of not giving up (Thursday). … We’re going to end up getting a pretty good seed (in the NCAA Tournament). We’ve got to lock down these last couple weeks, get focused.”

A strong showing Sunday at Ohio State would be a welcome step in that direction for the Hawkeyes.

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.