Leistikow: Hawkeyes look in mirror after humbling loss

Chad Leistikow

IOWA CITY, Ia. — This would be an easy spot to rip into the Iowa basketball program.

But I’m not going to do that, despite the Hawkeyes on Saturday suffering perhaps their most humbling nonconference home loss in five years.

They’re already being hard enough on themselves.

No, a 98-89 setback to Nebraska-Omaha and a 3-5 record isn’t where Fran McCaffery or these players wanted to be on Dec. 3.

But this is where they are. And they know what needs to change.

One by one, Iowa’s players cycled through the postgame interview room at Carver-Hawkeye Arena and identified why four of their last six opponents have topped 90 points.

“Our defensive communication isn’t there,” freshman forward Cordell Pemsl said.

“Sometimes we don’t trust our help-side (defense) is going to be there,” sophomore forward Ahmad Wagner added.

“It’s an effort thing,” senior guard Peter Jok said. “We’ve been talking about it. We’ve got to make a change soon.”

Nebraska-Omaha guard KJ Robinson (5) shoots between Iowa's Ahmad Wagner (0) and Dom Uhl (25). The Hawkeyes allowed 90-plus points for the fourth time this season and for the third game in a row.

None of those troubling comments are optimal heading into Iowa State week (that's at 7 p.m. Thursday here), and just over three weeks out from the start of Big Ten Conference play.

But sometimes identifying the problem is the biggest step.

McCaffery seems befuddled that the same thing keeps happening. He correctly pointed out that it’s rare to make 14 3-pointers in a game — as Iowa did Saturday on 34 attempts — and still lose by nine points.

Takeaways: Omaha makes history, Iowa bench disappears, Bohannon logs heavy minutes

Maybe being the answer to a trivia question — against which team did Omaha record its first-ever win over a Big Ten opponent? — will be the wake-up call that’s needed.

“We've played essentially 10 games if you count the scrimmage and the exhibition game,” McCaffery said. “We haven't defended in any of them. We have outscored people in four or five of them, but we haven't really competed defensively like you're going to need to with the caliber of teams on your schedule.

“So that has to change.”

McCaffery has been unsuccessful in finding the right combinations. But it’s not been for a lack of trying. He went deep down the bench with freshmen Ryan Kriener and Maishe Dailey in the second half.

Nothing worked.

What to do?

McCaffery's got talented players. But he needs to find the four guys most willing to play in-your-shorts defense, put them on the floor with Jok and go from there.

There’s a social-media segment that’s been critical of Jok’s defense.

That’s completely short-sighted. Jok is the most electric offensive weapon in the McCaffery era and he needs to be out there as much as his body will allow. He can't help Iowa by being in foul trouble.

In losses to beatable teams Memphis ( rating of 89 out of 351 Division I teams) and now Omaha (No. 168 entering Saturday), Jok combined for 75 points by himself, including a 33-point, 10-rebound outing Saturday.

Simply put, Jok needs more help than he's getting from his teammates.

Yet there he was Saturday, being hard on himself for the second straight game.

“It starts with me. I guess I’ve got to play better defense,” said Jok, who played 37 minutes. “I’ve got to put in more effort; I’ve got to get in better shape than I am right now.”

Sure, this Iowa team is young.

But a defensive turnaround is possible.

Just look across campus at the Iowa football team that’ll learn Sunday it’s playing in a really nice bowl game.

Defensive communication and players trying to do other people’s jobs were often cited as reasons for breakdowns in losses to North Dakota State, Northwestern and Penn State.

It took a while, but the Hawkeye football team figured out the communication and trust stuff and finished November by beating top-15 programs Michigan and Nebraska.

This Iowa basketball team now must buckle down and follow a similar blueprint.

“Once we get that down,” Wagner said, “everything else will kind of come together.”

For Hawkeye hoops, hopefully this was the low point of the 2016-17 season.

If it's not, then a fair heaping of criticism would be justified.

“It’s hard right now. But it’s a roller coaster,” said Jok, the team's leader. “I told them, it’s going to be up and down, you’ve just got to stay positive. It’s not how you start, it’s how you finish. We’ve got to stay together and stay positive. And we’ve got to make a change.”

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.