Iowa Hawkeyes stuck together and were able to play full regular-season basketball schedule

Mark Emmert
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY, Ia. — This is the home stretch for an Iowa men’s basketball team that has kept to itself for five months just to reach this point.

Two home games remain on the schedule — vs. Nebraska at 8 p.m. Thursday and Wisconsin at 11:30 a.m. Sunday. Merely playing those games, to conclude a full regular-season schedule, already feels like a victory to the Hawkeyes.

“Around October is when we kind of locked everything down. We said we’re going to focus on basketball,” Iowa senior guard Jordan Bohannon said Tuesday.

“We sacrificed a lot. We wanted to have it mean something toward the end of the season. I think we’re on pace to do that.”

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Sunday isn’t the finish line. Not by a long shot. But it is a relief for the Hawkeyes to have played all 27 games they set out to compete in during a pandemic. There were no fans, except for family members in some venues, including Carver-Hawkeye Arena. There were no hugs with parents or siblings after big victories or deflating losses. There were no trips downtown to hang out with fellow students in bars and restaurants.

Just basketball.

The Iowa men's basketball team has had some great bonding moments while playing all 27 scheduled games during a global pandemic this winter. Luka Garza (left, grabbing Austin Ash during pregame introductions last month) said the message was simple: "We can hang out with each other." That's what the Hawkeyes did to avoid any COVID-19 issues, and to make it to March with a chance to be a big factor in postseason play.

Iowa enters its final week ranked eighth in the Ferris Mowers Coaches’ Poll and fifth in the AP's poll, with a No. 2 seed in the NCAA Tournament a likely outcome. Winning in March is all that matters to the Hawkeyes. They’ve said that from the beginning. But that hasn’t made the journey easy.

Five Big Ten Conference teams are going to fall short of the 20 league games that were scheduled, including the Cornhuskers (7-17, 3-14), who have been scrambling to make up for a long pause after a COVID-19 outbreak that included coach Fred Hoiberg. Four others lost at least one of their seven non-conference games due to coronavirus protocols.

That leaves Iowa (18-7, 12-6) as one of five Big Ten schools who will get to a full 27-game slate.

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There has been luck involved, to be sure. The Hawkeyes were scheduled to play Michigan only once, and got that game in, albeit a week earlier than scheduled, despite a lengthy Wolverine pause. The same with Nebraska, a home game pushed back a month. And the Big Ten rescheduled a date at Michigan State for Iowa after the Spartans needed to take some time away from the sport.

Bohannon said no Hawkeyes tested positive for COVID-19 during the season, which began in November. But he was among a handful who contracted the virus during the summer, and Bohannon went public with how severe his symptoms were. He knew more than anybody what was at stake this winter, and how easily it could have unraveled.

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“It really comes down to the discipline I think that our players showed and a commitment to one another to be safe, do everything we could in terms of making good decisions off the floor so we can show up in practice every day, we can show up and play in all of our games,” said Iowa coach Fran McCaffery, who has two sons on the team.

All-American center Luka Garza said the basketball games have been the sole focus of the Hawkeyes, which is exactly what he wanted. He came back for a senior season with the express intent of winning a championship. The fact that he hasn’t been able to physically interact with his parents in all those months has been difficult, but worthwhile now that March has arrived and Iowa is in good shape to make a run at Big Ten and national titles.

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Garza said he, Connor McCaffery and other team leaders had a simple but forceful message for the younger players as the season was getting underway.

It was: “You’re going home and then you’re coming to the gym and that’s really all you’re doing. We can hang out with each other,” Garza said.

“You have to be able to understand what your priority is. You want to be able to play all your games. You have to be smart. You have to be careful. You can’t be going out. You can’t be walking around downtown. You can’t put yourself in positions where you could potentially get sick. And, obviously, we don’t want to put our coaches and other people around us at risk as well.”

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Garza praised the maturity of the Hawkeye team, which includes five true freshmen. But he recognized what an unusual circumstance it has been, and that it has taken a toll. Iowa even had a rare game scheduled for Christmas Day along the way, a trip to Minnesota, where no relatives were allowed in the arena.

“It’s harder mentally on every basketball player, because there’s no distraction. You go home and you go to the gym. There’s nothing else. There’s no escape,” Garza said.

“We love the game. We love the opportunity that’s in front of us. It’s exciting for us. We’re a group that would do whatever it took to make sure that we can play all our games.”

And they did.

No matter what happens this month, give the Hawkeyes credit for that at least.

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.