Leistikow: Everyone gets their moment, chance to breathe in Hawkeyes' rout of Illinois
CHICAGO — This was the performance that the Iowa Hawkeyes have been waiting for.
This was the performance they desperately needed.
A coach can't draw up confidence boosts for every single player on the white board. Yet as this Big Ten Conference Tournament opener played out, that's exactly how it played out for Fran McCaffery as his Hawkeyes' routed Illinois 83-62 on Thursday night at the United Center.
“You always want to, when you get here, put it all together," McCaffery said. "I thought we did that. Great performances from a lot of different people."
Let's go down the line, shall we?
Nicholas Baer was the star of the night with a game-high 17 points. The senior canned five 3-pointers. That's a career high. He attempted one shot in Sunday's loss to Nebraska.
Freshman Joe Wieskamp provided 13 points, hustle plays, 3-pointers, a game-high seven rebounds, a dunk and an emphatic muscle flex.
"Didn’t end the season the way we wanted to, but it’s a new season starting now," Wieskamp said of his impromptu flex. "The only thing we can do is go out there and play with all the emotion you can, and that’s what I tried to do.”
His teammates followed. Let's continue.
Connor McCaffery, who had some rough moments at Nebraska, tied a career-high with eight assists and knocked down his only 3-point attempt, hushing those maligning his shooting percentages for a night.
Maishe Dailey also hit a crucial first-half 3, and he let the Illinois fans behind him know about it.
Ryan Kriener, who scored 11 points in 16 minutes off the bench, splashed home two long-range shots and made some fired-up gestures of his own to commemorate them.
“When I hit one," he grinned, "I’ve got to make it count.”
Luka Garza swished home a 3. Isaiah Moss had a crisp nine-point game in front of his hometown fans.
And Tyler Cook, well, he was terrific.
Cook's line of 12 points, five rebounds and six assists only tell part of the story. The power forward played with an edge — like Wieskamp did — all night. His one-handed dunk off an in-bounds pass had Iowa players hinting they might jump back onto Twitter for a moment, just to see that phenomenal throw-down.
“I probably should’ve got it with two hands," Cook said, "but I wanted a flashier finish.”
Everyone was happy. The Hawkeyes finally got their 22nd win, 20 days after their 21st.
“It hasn’t been fun going to practice, with the losing streak we’ve been on," said Jordan Bohannon, the only Hawkeye regular I hadn't mentioned yet. The junior guard had eight points and five assists and probably hit the biggest of Iowa's 11 3-pointers, after Illinois closed to 30-29 late in the first half.
"You want to be on the court and be a winner. It made us work even harder and put a chip on our shoulder coming into Chicago. We all know what we’re capable of in this locker room.”
And that's why the smiles were everywhere.
“It’s been a minute since we got a win," Dailey said in an understatement. "Just getting back to what we know, getting back to the way we defended today, it was much-needed for us.”
Although dispatching the 11th-seeded team at the Big Ten Tournament isn’t a major accomplishment, it does check off some relieving boxes for the Hawkeyes.
One, it assured a four-game losing streak didn’t become five. A program surrounded by two-plus weeks of negativity since Fran McCaffery’s postgame tirade in Columbus, Ohio, needed positivity. A win — especially a blowout win — qualifies.
Two, it eliminates Selection Sunday sweating. The Hawkeyes’ recent slide had brought into play (even if it was a small chance) the prospects of relegation to the dreaded NCAA First Four. Now, after avoiding what would have been a second Quadrant 3 loss in March, the Hawkeyes are safe from bad losses here with NCAA NET No. 10 Michigan next. And they're safe from Dayton, Ohio.
Three, it ended an astonishing program drought. For the first time in six years (to the day), the Hawkeyes will play in a Friday quarterfinal at the Big Ten tournament. They were the only conference team not to appear from 2014 through 2018 after a series of stunning exits.
After beating the Illini, the pressure is off. The Hawkeyes can play like they have nothing to lose, continuing with a marquee 8:30 p.m. matchup with the Wolverines. If the bracket experts are to be believed, the consensus was that Iowa would be a No. 8 or 9 seed in the NCAA Tournament now. There should be nowhere to go but up now.
A win against third-seeded Michigan, and they’ll reach a Saturday Big Ten semifinal for the first time since the Brunner/Haluska/Horner-led Hawkeyes won it all in 2006.
And there is evidence that Iowa should be able to hang with the 26-5 Wolverines, considering it dominated the teams' lone meeting this season by 15 points.
“We believe that we have a chance to win this tournament," Wieskamp said. "We’ve just got to lock in on the scouting report tomorrow and get focused for that one.”
It’s been a tough three weeks for the Iowa basketball program. The radio broadcaster and head coach were suspended, and the team lost four games in 13 days.
Finally, a night to exhale.
A satisfying win — in which everyone in the rotation got a piece of the action — was something everyone associated with Iowa basketball badly needed.
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.