Leistikow: Being good not good enough for Hawkeyes after 5th straight win. 'We want to be great.'

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY, Ia. — With five wins over 15 days, the Iowa basketball team has done magnificent work to set the stage for a chance to do something special.

But now, it’s time to kick it up another notch.

"This is the part of the season where it’s decided … are they good or are they great?" Hawkeye junior guard Jordan Bohannon said Sunday following Iowa’s 95-71 pasting of Illinois. “We want to be great this year. We don’t want to fold like we did last year.”

The 24th-ranked Hawkeyes’ latest success at Carver-Hawkeye Arena capped a five-game winning streak that began with an inspiring home victory against Nebraska on Jan. 6. They’ve turned a 0-3 Big Ten Conference start into 5-3, good for sole possession of fifth place out of 14.

To put this in perspective, Iowa didn't have a single two-game Big Ten winning streak in the 2017-18 regular season.

Now, the Hawkeyes are legit contenders for the coveted top four of the Big Ten. And maybe something more.

“It’s big. We’ve turned things around,” said sophomore center Luka Garza, who’s scored 42 points in the last two games. “We struggled early (in the Big Ten), making some crucial mistakes. Now, we’re doing a way better job executing and playing way better overall basketball.”

During this 15-day stretch, they’ve hardly played a world-beating schedule. But they did win three times as underdogs and took down two ranked opponents at home (Nebraska, Ohio State).

They proved they could win without their leading scorer — twice. Tyler Cook didn’t play at Northwestern or Penn State, but Iowa rallied from sizable second-half deficits to keep the win column growing, the loss column stagnant.

They’ve seen a freshman come of age. Joe Wieskamp took over the Northwestern game, and he did it again Sunday — raining in every shot he took (including all six 3-pointers) to tie his career high with 24 points.

They’ve proven to be clutch down the stretch in close games, an elusive quality in Fran McCaffery’s previous eight Iowa teams. Jordan Bohannon’s 3-pointer to close out Penn State goes down as, so far, the second-biggest of 228 in his career. (The one to beat Wisconsin, at Madison, as a freshman will be tough to top.)

And on Sunday, they proved they can roll as a big favorite. Illinois entered Carver-Hawkeye with a lousy record but having just plastered a decent Minnesota team by 27.

Iowa's players are happy but unsatisfied after a 95-71 win against Illinois. A vital four-game stretch lies ahead, starting with Thursday's game against Michigan State.

But the Hawkeyes held the Illini (5-13, 1-6) without a point on 13 of their first 15 possessions while scorching the nets at a 68 percent clip and a remarkable 1.4 points per possession. Isaiah Moss poured in 21 points and six rebounds, one game after being left on the bench for almost the entire second half.

The lack of reliance on one or two players is what McCaffery has liked most about this five-game surge.

“Somebody doesn’t have such a great game, somebody else steps up. We didn’t have a whole lot of that last year,” said McCaffery, whose team already has more Big Ten wins than it did all of last season (4-14). “You don’t know from game to game who’s going to be the man. Obviously, today, it was Joe and Isaiah.”

And now … Iowa is 16-3 for the second time in the McCaffery era.

The only previous occasion was three seasons ago, when the Jarrod Uthoff-led Hawkeyes rose to No. 3 in the national rankings. That team was never 17-3 though, something this group has a chance to do here in dramatic fashion on Thursday.

“We know who’s coming in on Thursday," said Connor McCaffery, who had eight assists Sunday.

Like I said before, now’s the time to kick it up a notch.

Michigan State is coming to town for Thursday’s 6 p.m. game at Carver-Hawkeye. Yes, the same team that drubbed the Hawkeyes, 90-68, in East Lansing on Dec. 3.

We'll see soon how much Iowa has truly improved.

And the Spartans (16-2 overall and the Big Ten’s lone unbeaten, at 7-0) are just the beginning of an intimidating four-game stretch ahead. After that, it’s at Minnesota (Sunday), home against No. 4 Michigan (Feb. 1), then at Indiana (Feb. 7).

Daunting? Sure. Iowa could play pretty well and still lose all four.

Dripping with opportunity? Absolutely.

With an 11-0 non-conference record and now this five-game winning streak, the Hawkeyes have earned this spotlight position.

The Hawkeyes entered Sunday at No. 25 in the NET rankings, the NCAA’s new version of the RPI. Having these next four games filled with meaning is something every Iowa player was working toward during the offseason.

These next four games will help define just how great this season could be. A prosperous stretch of 3-1 or even 4-0, and Iowa would be in prime position to reach its first NCAA Tournament in three years, and it would be a sudden candidate to be rewarded with first- and second-round games in nearby Des Moines.

“Just keep on completing our resume,” Bohannon said. “That’s the goal."

Coaches, players and fans alike can agree: It's nice to be playing such meaningful games in late January. Winning some or all of these next four could mean playing more of them in late March.

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.