Leistikow: Hawkeyes make smart decision to rest Jok, learn important lessons
IOWA CITY, Ia. — Fran McCaffery and the Iowa medical staff did the right thing, keeping the basketball team's injured star on the bench Saturday night.
It was best for Peter Jok and his ailing back.
And, whether Iowa was going to win Game No. 22 on the schedule or not, it was best for the program — for this season and beyond.
Yet even McCaffery couldn’t have imagined it playing out this well on the first dry run.
Minus the Big Ten Conference’s leading scorer, the Hawkeyes delivered one of their most aggressive, complete performances of the season in handling Ohio State, 85-72, before 15,178 at Carver-Hawkeye Arena.
Despite missing Jok’s 21 points per game, Iowa discovered answers everywhere. It shot 50 percent in both halves and registered its highest point total since a double-overtime loss at Nebraska on Jan 5.
“We knew everybody was going to have to contribute,” sophomore Nicholas Baer said, “in order for us to be successful."
With Jok out, the Hawkeyes’ learning curve was accelerated.
They figured out that, wow, extra ball movement really does work. Brady Ellingson's emergence was just one example. He kept getting open 3-pointers, and he canned five of them on his way to a team-high 17 points.
Big men Dom Uhl and Cordell Pemsl combined for 11 assists. As a team, Iowa had just nine turnovers, its lowest total since Jan. 1.
“There's a reason why you make 50 percent,” McCaffery said. “If you move the ball, you're shooting more open shots.”
They also (re-)learned that defense is a team thing.
McCaffery inserted energy into the starting lineup with Baer and Ahmad Wagner. And, lo and behold, for the first time in four games the Hawkeyes didn’t fall into an 8-0 hole.
In fact, the Hawkeyes held Ohio State to two points in the first 4½ minutes.
“I have a lot of respect for (Ohio State), for Thad (Matta),” McCaffery said. “And for us to defend the way we did and for us to execute the way we did, I think, is a big step for our program.”
No, this wasn’t a great Buckeye team by any means, but Ohio State (13-9, 3-6 Big Ten) had won three of its last four games while the Hawkeyes (12-10, 4-5) had dropped three straight.
The Hawkeyes’ first 61 points came from a fearless group of freshmen and sophomores.
“We moved the ball well from side to side,” said freshman Tyler Cook, who scored 10 of his 13 points after halftime. “And we trusted each other, offensively and defensively.”
On the sideline, in a sportcoat and slacks, Jok was loving every moment of it.
He yukked it up when Jordan Bohannon swished a 3-pointer from a good 26 feet as the clock ran down to give Iowa 40-29 halftime lead. He sprang to his feet on Cook’s thunder-dunk to open the second half. He danced as big man Ryan Kriener kept making hustle plays and buckets.
And when Ohio State big man Trevor Thompson fouled out with Iowa up 18 points, Jok waved him a playful goodbye.
McCaffery noticed, and appreciated, Jok’s engagement level.
“He promised me he would do that, and it's not only what he did (tonight) … because some guys will do it when everybody is watching,” McCaffery said. “He did it yesterday when nobody was watching, and he did it in the locker room when there was nobody there. So I think that's a good sign. I'm really proud of him there.”
What to do with Jok?
McCaffery said afterward Jok would be evaluated day-to-day, but noted, “I think the plan is it will go for a little while, but it's really going to be a function of, how much progress does he make?”
The advantages of sitting Jok now rather than later are plentiful.
First, it’s good for the player. Jok came back for his senior season instead of pursuing a pro opportunity, and it doesn’t make sense to run his back into the ground with years of basketball ahead.
Second, if the rest now helps his back later (and that's certainly an "if"), maybe this Hawkeye team can be in a position to make a late-season push into the Big Ten’s upper division and a run at the conference tournament in Washington, D.C.
Third, and maybe most importantly, McCaffery was able to get a quicker glimpse into the Hawkeyes' future, to see which of his young guys he can count on not only in March but in the coming, promising years.
Iowa’s in the midst of a stretch of very winnable games. A road game at last-place Rutgers is next, followed by a Feb. 5 home date against Nebraska. McCaffery can’t say it, but I can: With or without Jok, the Hawkeyes have a good shot to win both games.
After that, it’s road trips to Minnesota and Michigan State, then a bye. Jok would only have to miss four more games to get 24 days of rest for his back, with a possible return of Feb. 18 against Illinois.
That’s all hypothetical for now, but if Iowa can take what it did Saturday night and build on it — then bring a healthier Jok back into the fold … well, that’s this team’s best chance to be successful when the games matter most.
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.