Leistikow: Making defense fun again, Hawkeyes toy with UNI in Hy-Vee Classic finale

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

The series finale of the Hy-Vee Classic lacked the kind of scintillating action that would have folks clamoring for more lopsided matchups like this.

But for the 21st-ranked Hawkeyes, it was an oppressive thing of beauty.

Iowa played one of the best defensive halves in Fran McCaffery’s nine years here on the way to a dominating 77-54 victory against helpless Northern Iowa in front of a half-full Wells Fargo Arena.

Nicholas Baer (51) and the Hawkeyes showed the kind of hustle they'll continue to need once Big Ten play resumes Jan. 3 at Purdue.

Official attendance was 12,236 — but swaths of open seats in downtown Des Moines made for an emblematic backdrop of this seven-year event having run its course … at least for the near future.

“It’s been a fun seven years,” Iowa athletics director Gary Barta said before the game, revisiting the decision by the Hawkeyes and Iowa State to retreat from this annual gathering of the state’s Division I programs on a December Saturday. “... It maybe didn’t take off like we envisioned.”

Stressing the same talking points as he has in previous interviews with the Register — primarily that the move to a 20-game Big Ten Conference schedule forced Iowa’s hand — Barta said there are no plans add a home date with Northern Iowa or Drake in 2019 or beyond, though he didn’t rule it out.

“I understand UNI’s position,” Barta said. “In fact, I was there once (as an athletics department official from 1990-96). But my job is to do what’s best for the University of Iowa.”

That, Barta and McCaffery agree, is to create a schedule that gets Iowa properly prepared for Big Ten play and into the NCAA Tournament. 

So far, so good on that front.

The Hawkeyes played one of their best games of the year in controlling Iowa State last week. Then, after a nine-day layoff, they manhandled another in-state rival that’s historically given them fits.

Iowa had more than doubled up the Panthers, at 51-25, before the first media timeout of the second half.

Sophomore center Luka Garza applauded the team’s attention to detail on the game plan — something that didn’t happen with frequency during last year’s 14-19 disappointment.

“It was one of the best performances we’ve had all season (and) since I’ve been here,” said Garza, who matched Tyler Cook for the team lead with 17 points.

If Iowa can keep the defensive heat on opponents like it did Saturday, it can beat anyone. Finding fun (and success) with defense is largely how the Hawkeyes have racked up four major-conference victories this season.

“Last year, you wouldn’t see us slapping the floor and doing some of the stuff we’ve been doing this year," Garza said. "In the offseason, our coaches just kind of put that mindset in us."

The Hawkeyes were relentless without the ball Saturday, forcing countless bad shots. In the first half, Iowa held the Panthers to 18 points on 21 percent shooting and led by 21. 

Not bad, after having one of the team’s worst practices of the year Thursday.

“The important thing is we corrected it on Friday,” said senior Nicholas Baer, who wound up 4-0 in the Hy-Vee Classic. “That’s how I’ve always felt: How are we doing the day before the game? Friday was a really good practice, and that showed today.”

And now: The Hawkeyes are three cupcake-opponent wins from their first unbeaten nonconference campaign since … Dr. Tom Davis’ first season at Iowa, in 1986-87.

Yes, really.

Five times since that 30-5 team got to the cusp of the Final Four, the Hawkeyes have had one-loss nonconference seasons — most recently in 2004-05 under Steve Alford.

McCaffery’s best out-of-conference record at Iowa is 11-2 (twice). With home wins against Western Carolina on Tuesday (with a rating of 298 out of 353 Division I teams), Savannah State on Dec. 22 (KenPom 345) and Bryant on Dec. 29 (KenPom 338), the Hawkeyes will finish 11-0 in nonconference play.

Of course, the Hawkeyes (8-2 overall) are swimming upstream in the Big Ten after losses to Wisconsin in Michigan State. But if they can get to 11-2 (and if they don't, that's a national story) and stay healthy in the process, they’ll be about as well-positioned for January as you could hope.

What does McCaffery want to see leading up to the resumption of Big Ten play Jan. 3 at Purdue?

“Consistency on both ends of the floor. Ball movement. Unselfishness," he said. "A mixture of jump shots and post feeds. Good transition defense. Good ball screen defense. Good defense against their actions. And five guys working as one.

"Anything short of that in our league is problematic.”

Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 24 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.