IOWA CITY — With its encouraging play in the last 2½ weeks, the Iowa basketball team has certainly generated some optimism.
But now comes the cold splash of reality: It’s called the Big Ten Conference season.
“We have accomplished a great deal,” coach Fran McCaffery said, “but from here on out, it's going to be different.”
With Thursday’s 89-57 thrashing of Delaware State in the books, Iowa’s next 19 (at least) games are against Big Ten competition.
How will these young, 8-5 Hawkeyes handle the rugged grind ahead?
And what are realistic expectations?
To set up answers to those questions, let’s look at the good and the not-so-good.
First, the positives.
Peter Jok has been even better than advertised, his shot-making ability almost as good when contested as when open, and he’s been smart in getting to the foul line, where he shoots 92.5 percent.
Three freshmen have far exceeded my expectations.
Jordan Bohannon has helped solve the preseason’s biggest question mark: point-guard play. The Marion native’s ability to shoot fearlessly from distance and a 4.7 assist average have helped him seize the starting role over Christian Williams.
Freshman guard Jordan Bohannon thinks so.
Crafty Cordell Pemsl is here to stay, a terrific high-percentage shooter (.743) in the front-court when McCaffery needed help with injuries to Tyler Cook and Dale Jones.
Few of us saw these Isaiah Moss contributions coming. He went from deep on the bench to starting lineup six games ago, and he has been a force in transition and provided a much-needed upgrade on defense.
Speaking of defense, Iowa’s turnaround there has bubbled up the best reason for optimism. It's allowing 67.6 points a game and 32.8 percent shooting during the current five-game winning streak; those numbers were 85.6 and 45.1 before it.
"They definitely have shown signs of improvement, you're absolutely right," McCaffery said. "We played so poorly in that stretch of games defensively."
Now, the concerns.
Iowa’s turnover rate is high (18.2 percent of possessions vs. 14.1 percent a year ago) — including a sloppy 17 miscues against Delaware State, one of Division I’s worst teams. That’ll be a problem on the Big Ten road.
Take away Jok, and the foul shooting is really shaky. Cook is at 59 percent, Pemsl is at 52 and Ahmad Wagner’s at 50. Not ideal for a frontcourt that’s going to get every shot challenged for the next 2½ months. Plus, most Big Ten games are tight. Free throws matter.
It’s a red flag that the Hawkeyes’ star guard leads them in rebounds (Jok, 6.2 per game). Six of their 13 opponents — including Delaware State — have outrebounded them.
The fun starts Wednesday at Purdue. Mackey Arena is not only a tough place to play, but the Boilermakers just might be the best team in the Big Ten.
That’s one heck of an intro.
McCaffery pulled Bohannon aside after Thursday’s win and encouraged him to watch as much film as he can on how Purdue pressures ball handlers.
Done and done; Bohannon has already been watching Purdue games on his iPad.
“It’s going to be a tough challenge, but this is what we live for,” Bohannon said. “This is why we’re playing it.”
Another question is how Cook’s return at Purdue impacts the Hawkeyes’ play. How will the heralded freshman, who was averaging 13.7 points a game before being sidelined with a broken finger, alter the chemistry that’s been established during this winning run?
“I don’t see it changing at all,” Wagner said. “I think we’re going to be just as effective as before.”
The Iowa sophomore has been through the Big Ten grind once.
The good news is, Iowa’s rugged schedule of the last month-plus — including four games against top-50 KenPom.com teams in Seton Hall, Virginia, Notre Dame and Iowa State — have provided a taste of what’s to come.
What does this all add up to?
This team seems hungry and embracing what’s ahead. It seems to have figured out its defensive breakdowns. There’s a lot of upside.
Here’s what I’m expecting:
The Hawkeyes are going to win a game or two you didn’t see coming. On some night, Jok will carry this team to a stirring win.
They’re also going to suffer some tough losses. They haven't even played in a down-to-the-wire yet.
KenPom.com predicts Iowa to go 8-10 in Big Ten play; I think it’ll take 11-7 to have a decent shot at returning to the NCAA Tournament. The odds are not high that’ll happen. A more realistic expectation is somewhere between 7-11 and 10-8. But ...
... With a team that starts three freshmen — and possibly a fourth, if Cook replaces sophomore Wagner in the lineup — we just don’t know what we're going to get.
No matter what happens, the best approach as a fan is just to enjoy the rebuilding ride.
Expect frustrating inconsistency. Enjoy the successes. There will be both.
The Hawkeyes are progressing and ready to give it their best shot.
“People say we’re young and inexperienced, but I think our team’s good,” Wagner said. “I think our team can surprise a lot of people.”
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.