Leistikow: Impressions from Hawkeyes' first true hoops test

Chad Leistikow

IOWA CITY — First impressions from this new-look Iowa basketball team’s first true test of the young season …

It’s going to be a wild four months. Thursday’s 91-83 home loss to Seton Hall demonstrated why the Hawkeyes are going to excite their fans at times, frustrate them at others.

Iowa's Tyler Cook celebrates a dunk during the Hawkeyes' game against Seton Hall at Carver-Hawkeye Arena on Thursday, Nov. 17, 2016.

Freshman Tyler Cook epitomized that. He hit his first career 3-pointer just 94 seconds in; he spun through the lane for an emphatic left-handed dunk and, during stretches of the game, he was the best player on the floor. Cook scored 24 points, upping his average to 14.7 for the season.

Yet the 6-foot-9, 253-pound forward grabbed just two rebounds in 32 minutes and missed seven of his 12 free-throw attempts.

“I don’t know what’s going on. Can’t put too much thought into it," Cook said. "They’ll drop. They felt great coming off my hands."

The fans in attendance seem to get it. During one frenetic stretch, Cook tried to receive a transition pass under the basket, but the ball bounced off his body and out of bounds. The crowd cheered the effort and excitement anyway.

“My focus tonight was kind of to play freely and aggressively. I got back to that a little bit,” Cook said. “But I could’ve scored 100 points — if we take the L, it doesn’t really matter.”

Hawkeye miscues costly in loss to Seton Hall

Adam Woodbury will be missed. Iowa doesn’t have an equivalent 7-foot-1 body to replace him. While the Hawkeyes have more athletic big men this year, they clearly lack the space-eating rim protector that Woodbury quietly was for four years. No wonder Seton Hall scored an incredible 50 points in the paint to Iowa’s 24.

The Hawkeyes plan to use Cook and Ahmad Wagner (6-7, 235) as their last line of defense. Wagner had an off night (one point, two rebounds in 20 minutes), and Cook was too timid defensively. Maybe this was an anomaly.

“We didn’t have an inside presence tonight about protecting the rim,” senior Peter Jok said. “We got on Tyler a little bit about it, and I think he’s going to pick up from it.”

It’s easier to block shots against Kennesaw State and Savannah State; Iowa had 13 of them in two easy opening wins. Thursday, it had only two — both from Nicholas Baer.

With Jok, Iowa’s never out of a game. Jok scored 13 first-half points, then injured his shooting arm early in the second half. Hit his funny bone, actually, and lost feeling in his arm and a few of his right fingers for a while.

With Jok out or struggling to make shots, Seton Hall took control. Once Jok got feeling back, he heated up — scoring 15 of Iowa’s 17 points during one stretch to cut the Pirates’ lead to 77-72. Jok finished with career highs of 30 points and 11 rebounds.

While the Hawkeyes can’t default to Jok carrying them, he is capable of scoring points in big bunches if Iowa gets in trouble.

Fran McCaffery has to go more than seven-deep. He admitted afterward that he probably should have lengthened the bench in the second half. After playing 11 guys in the opening 20 minutes, he stuck to a core seven in the second — Jok, Cook, Wagner, Baer, Christian Williams, Jordan Bohannon and Dom Uhl played 97 of the 100 possible minutes.

Surprisingly, forward Cordell Pemsl (who came into the game averaging 14.0 points) played only one minute in the second half. He made the most of his six minutes, scoring two points with five rebounds. Brady Ellingson (23 points Sunday vs. Savannah State) played two second-half minutes.

“You know, you're in the heat of the game, you make some of those decisions sometimes and then you go back and evaluate," McCaffery said. "Maybe we should have given so and so a shot.”

Forward Dale Jones played for the first time this season, but only got two minutes. He injured his wrist and didn’t return. Ryan Kriener and Maishe Dailey were the only scholarship Hawkeyes who didn’t play.

Williams looks the part at point. Point guard was perhaps the biggest question mark coming in, and through three games McCaffery has split minutes between sophomore Williams (62 minutes) and freshman Bohannon (61).

Though both players had four assists and three turnovers Thursday, Williams looks to be a few steps ahead in almost every department. At 6-5, he is more versatile (he also had six points, five rebounds and two steals Thursday) and plays better defense.

McCaffery chalked Thursday up as a learning experience for Bohannon.

“The length and the quickness and the power of this team is unlike what he's seen,” McCaffery said. “So, he'll get that figured out.”

Big-game free throws a concern. Iowa shot 19 of 32 from the free-throw line (59 percent). Take away Jok’s late 6-for-6, and the rest of the Hawkeyes were just 50 percent (13 of 26).

The Hawkeyes have more stern non-conference tests soon, starting Nov. 25 vs. No. 7 Virginia in Destin, Fla., where foul shooting could mean the difference between winning and losing. Iowa had been at 70 percent through two games.

“I think we got a lot of guys that we have to kind of see how they perform,” McCaffery said. “But, yeah, I think we're better than that.”

Win or lose, the Hawkeyes needed this. A win would’ve been nice. But they discovered a lot to build on and a lot to improve upon.

Iowa will have to win some of these non-conference tests if it wants an NCAA Tournament shot. More chances are coming fast.

“It was a learning experience for a lot of guys, but at the same time, we don’t have time for making youth an excuse,” Jok said. “We’ve just got to get better from it.”

Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 22 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.