Leistikow: Off-season muscle has added in-season grit to Fran McCaffery's Hawkeyes

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY, Ia. — We still don’t know where this Iowa basketball season is going. There are 14 more conference games ahead, plus the Big Ten Tournament. Selection Sunday for the NCAA Tournament is still more than two months away.

But we can safely conclude that this Hawkeye team looks a lot different than it did a year ago — because, well, it looks different.

Bigger. Stronger.


Luka Garza jumps for one of his four rebounds in Iowa's 72-62 win against Ohio State. The sophomore center led the Hawkeyes with 16 points compared to Ohio State big man Kaleb Wesson's two.

No. 25 Iowa’s 72-62 victory Saturday afternoon against 17th-ranked Ohio State provided more evidence that they’re able to stand up to the competition.

"Everyone that has watched us last year and this year can see there’s a big visible difference with how we look. We look a lot bigger, we look a lot stronger,” said 6-foot-9 forward Ryan Kriener, who scored 11 points in 13 key bench minutes Saturday. “And I think it’s paying off in the more physical play of the Big Ten.”

It’s sure paid off this week.

Once 0-3 in conference play, Iowa is now 3-3 after a flurry of three wins in seven days.

Suddenly, people are excited and hopeful about Hawkeye basketball again.

Especially the players.

As they should be. They’ll probably be a top-20 team when the polls come out Monday.

“What a story,” junior point guard Jordan Bohannon beamed upon realizing the Hawkeyes have already matched last season’s win total (at 14-3) in 16 fewer games. Iowa’s 14-19 campaign of 2017-18 became a drag, a constant reminder of the lack of defensive toughness that everyone knew needed to change.

“It’s cool, just because of the work we’ve put in and how hard we worked to get to this point,” Bohannon continued. “It’s just a drastic change when you look at where we were at this point last year. It sucked. It wasn’t fun at all. We still showed up to work, but we knew we had dug ourselves a huge hole.”

In the aftermath of Saturday’s win, in which Iowa doubled up Ohio State in the key “points in the paint” statistic (36-18), Bohannon and Kriener pointed to the offseason commitment in the weight room that has them feeling more like a physical Big Ten team.

“It’s paying off when you see our guards being able to switch down to the big (men),” Kriener said, “and really fight those guys down low for a decent amount of time before we can switch back.”

The Hawkeyes’ offseason program focused on powerlifting, with an emphasis on adding bulk. Kriener, as an example, increased his frame from 240 to 255 pounds.

Across the board, the Hawkeyes are visibly more muscular. Growth comes from maturity, too, as wide-eyed sophomores have become battle-tested juniors.

“They have always had good size,” Ohio State coach Chris Holtmann said, “but they are a little bit bigger and longer right now than they’ve been.”

► More: Hawkeyes win with defense, clamping down on Ohio State's star

Iowa's spring commitment to the weight room transitioned to summer practices centered around defense.

When Joe Wieskamp arrived on campus, the highly regarded freshman quickly realized he would need to work on his own to improve his offense.

“Right when I got here, I was a little thrown off with how much defense we played,” said Wieskamp, who continues to be one of Iowa’s better all-around players with a solid 10 points, seven rebounds, two blocks and two steals Saturday. “Didn’t get a lot of shots up.”

Surely, the Hawkeye players are seeing what good interior play unlocks.

Iowa leads the country in Ken Pomeroy’s important “free-throw rate” statistic — free throw attempts divided by field goal attempts. The Hawkeyes shot 25 more foul shots Saturday to Ohio State’s 11.

On offense, Luka Garza (16 points) and Tyler Cook (15) owned the lane against the also-bulky Buckeyes.

On defense, an opposing big man was nearly invisible against the Hawkeyes.

In Wednesday’s 73-63 road win at Northwestern, Iowa held potent Wildcats big man Dererk Pardon (6-8, 235) to a season-low six points.

Saturday, the guy to stop was Ohio State’s Kaleb Wesson (6-9, 270). He was averaging 21.3 points in Ohio State’s last six games. Saturday, Iowa got him in foul trouble and held him to a season-low two.

But there’s a long way to go. For all of Iowa's good work this week, it's still just in eighth place in the Big Ten standings.

And now there’s another injury worry. Cook added a left-ankle sprain Saturday to the right-knee injury that forced him miss the Northwestern game.

The upcoming week feels like it's ripe for a letdown. The Hawkeyes face the two last-place teams in the Big Ten — at Penn State on Wednesday, home against Illinois on Sunday. Both are 0-5 in conference play.

The Hawkeyes can't forget what got them to 14-3. 

“We’re playing the best basketball we have," Bohannon said, "in a long time."

Iowa coach Fran McCaffery was justifiably proud of his team. It's been thrown a new injury almost every week. 

"I’m proud of the guys and the maturity level they’ve shown," he said. "But we’re not there yet. We’ve got to keep going.”

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.