Leistikow: Iowa's roller-coaster season hits a dip

Chad Leistikow

IOWA CITY, Ia. — This Iowa basketball season, star guard Peter Jok reminded us again Thursday night, was going to feel like a roller coaster.

Beating Purdue one week, it was like the rush of the thrill ride.

Losing a late lead to Maryland on ESPN seven days later, and it was easy to feel sick.

That’s the reality of where the Hawkeyes stand on this up-and-down journey as they reach their first bye weekend of the Big Ten Conference season.

“I think our team is a lot better than what our record shows,” sophomore forward Ahmad Wagner said following Thursday’s 84-76 home loss to the No. 25 Terrapins before 11,040 fans at Carver-Hawkeye Arena. “We’re going to continue to get better.”

Iowa is 11-9 overall and 3-4 in league play, in the ballpark of where most people thought the Hawkeyes would be.

A rational basketball fan would've thought a Maryland team that shot 57 percent on this night would’ve cruised.

Yet Terrapins coach Mark Turgeon had to ride a game-ending 15-4 run to outlast the scrappy Hawkeyes, who struggled in almost every area Thursday — shooting, defense and turnovers.

Iowa's Peter Jok (14) was shadowed by Maryland defenders Thursday. He has been held to 6-for-21 shooting while battling back spasms in Iowa's last two games, both losses.

“They’ve got a heck of a team. They’re going to be great,” Turgeon said. “The future’s unbelievably bright here at Iowa.”

Coaches are prone to say nice things about other teams. Heck, Tom Izzo once publicly defended Todd Lickliter’s coaching record at Iowa.

But the point is, the Hawkeyes have the pieces to still do some nice things — maybe even this season.

The two biggest things that need to improve during Iowa’s bye week ahead?

Jok’s health and team defense.

First things first. If Jok can’t shake the back spasms that have bothered him for two straight games, the rest of the season could get ugly.

The Big Ten’s leading scorer was held to four points vs. Northwestern and 14 vs. Purdue while battling through a back-muscle issue he said cropped up Thursday after two pain-free days of practice.

“It was hard tonight,” Jok said, “because it was really hurting.”

He gutted through 31 minutes, but scored only two second-half points Thursday. It’s no secret Iowa’s freshman-heavy team needs good Peter going forward.

Jok says the toughest part of the back pain is bending into his shot and defensive stance. He said he was too upright Thursday.

“It was hard to stay low,” said Jok, who went 4-for-12 from the floor. “It kind of messed with my shot a little bit.”

Doctors have prescribed rest and treatment.

But there's no medical answer for Iowa's visible defensive lapses of the last two games.

Every time it seemed like Iowa would charge back from a self-made deficit, Maryland seemed to wind up with an open layup or 3-pointer.

The sequence that stuck out as emblematic of the night: In the first half, after Iowa had sliced a 14-point deficit to 37-30 on Isaiah Moss’ steal-and-layup that brought the Carver crowd to its feet, Maryland got a gimme lay-in by Justin Jackson with just a few ticks left on the shot clock to push the lead back to nine. A defensive breakdown.

Later, after Iowa seized a 72-69 lead with 3:19 remaining, Maryland guard Melo Trimble found himself open for back-to-back 3s. He buried them both.

“You've got to give them credit for the shots they made,” Iowa coach Fran McCaffery said. “I mean, they were moving the ball. Our activity defensively was obviously much better in the second half (when Maryland committed 12 turnovers).

“I'm proud of our guys, the way they fought back. But they did a good job of answering our runs with timely baskets.”

The last two games — a 35-point debacle at Northwestern and now the Hawkeyes’ first Big Ten home loss of the season — had Iowa’s opponents shoot a combined 67-for-115 (58.3 percent).

Now comes a much-needed break for Iowa.

It's a time to recharge, as the Hawkeyes did in December after an alarming home loss to Nebraska-Omaha.

Iowa players spoke after that game of costly defensive communication issues. Five days later, they delivered a stirring win over in-state rival Iowa State.

“Some of the bad habits are coming back; we can see that,” freshman forward Cordell Pemsl said. “They’re all things that all of us can improve on. They’re not things that are wrong with our team chemistry; they’re not long-term problems.”

That sounds like an encouraging quote.

If Iowa is going to make some noise this season, this upcoming stretch presents the best opportunity. The Hawkeyes’ next three games are at Illinois (Wednesday), then home against Ohio State (Jan. 28) and at Rutgers (Jan. 31). Those are the Big Ten's three bottom teams.

After that, it’s home against Nebraska, which hasn’t won since beating Iowa in double overtime on Jan. 5 in Lincoln.

It’s not a reach to think the Hawkeyes could win all four games.

But, as Turgeon said after his team (17-2, 5-1) took the Big Ten lead: “It’s just a long, hard grind. You never know when you’re going to win your next one, to be honest with you."

How Iowa — including Jok's back — comes out of this six-day space between games just might tell the tale of the rest of this roller-coaster season.

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.