Leistikow: Short-handed Hawkeyes look to overcome tricky history at Nebraska

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

No matter how good or bad Nebraska’s basketball season is going, the trip to Lincoln has usually been a tricky one for Fran McCaffery.

The 10th-year Iowa coach won in his first trip to Nebraska in the 2011-12 season — the Cornhuskers’ first in the Big Ten Conference — but has won only once in Lincoln since, with four losses … which have often been dealt in the most pain-staking way possible.

If you’ve got the stomach, let’s flash back to three of them before moving on to Tuesday’s 8 p.m., BTN-televised matchup between the Hawkeyes (10-4, 1-2 Big Ten) and Fred Hoiberg’s Huskers (6-8, 1-2) at 15,000-seat Pinnacle Bank Arena.

Iowa players Joe Wieskamp (10), Luka Garza (left) and Ryan Kriener (background) are winless in Pinnacle Bank Arena. The Hawkeyes have lost three in a row there, usually in heartbreaking fashion.

In 2013: Nebraska 64, Iowa 60 — The Hawkeyes, trying to make a late-season run to the NCAA Tournament, squandered a 19-point lead in the final meeting inside the Bob Devaney Sports Center. The Cornhuskers, going nowhere at 3-10 in Big Ten play, got a shot-clock-beating 3-pointer from Dylan Talley with 9.2 seconds left to break a tie. That crushing defeat contributed to Iowa (despite a 21-12 record) ending up in the NIT, just outside the NCAA cut.

In 2017: Nebraska 93, Iowa 90 (2 OTs) — Questionable officiating was a prime story line in this one, as the Cornhuskers attempted the game’s final 16 free throws in a back-and-forth finish. Iowa’s Peter Jok and Tyler Cook expressed disbelief in the crew of Terry Wymer, Steve McJunkins and Donnie Epley afterward. Jok (34 points) said he was slapped on his final shot attempt in regulation that could’ve won the game. Once again, this loss probably cost Iowa an NCAA Tournament bid. The Hawkeyes were among the dreaded "first four out" on Selection Sunday.

In 2019: Nebraska 93, Iowa 91 (OT) — The most improbable of the losses in Lincoln came in the regular-season finale. Iowa led by as many as 16 points and still led by nine in the final minute of regulation before collapsing. Nebraska, which was playing out the string in Tim Miles’ final days, scored 16 points in 38 seconds to force overtime, then blocked Jordan Bohannon’s 3-pointer at the buzzer to clinch the win.

Why can it be so difficult to play at Nebraska?

One reason is the atmosphere. No matter how the Huskers are doing, the fan turnout at Pinnacle Bank Arena is impressive. An opponent can’t walk into Lincoln and expect a tame victory. Purdue found that out the hard way, falling 70-56 a few Sundays ago.

“They’ve been good the last couple years,” McCaffery said Monday. “It’s just another road venue in the league with a great fan base and good players on both teams.”

Iowa has lost the last three years in Lincoln, including the not-yet-mentioned 98-84 loss in 2018 … the most points the Cornhuskers have ever scored in a conference game as a member of the Big Ten. That means no current Hawkeye player, including senior forward Ryan Kriener, has won there.

And, even though analytics website KenPom.com projects a 10-point Hawkeye win, the circumstances are getting tougher by the minute.

Iowa might have to unveil its most short-handed lineup yet, if freshman guard CJ Fredrick cannot play. He is questionable with what’s being called a foot injury.

McCaffery sounded as if he would take a cautious approach with Fredrick, and he should. The Hawkeyes need to play the long game and need everyone as close to maximum health as possible for the second half of the season.

Iowa has 17 regular-season games remaining — all in the rugged, competitive Big Ten — over the next 62 days. A serious Fredrick setback would be potentially disastrous to the Hawkeyes’ NCAA Tournament chances. Fredrick, who is a 50% 3-point shooter and Iowa’s third-leading scorer, needs to be able to play 30-plus minutes a game on a team that (including him) is down to nine available scholarship players.

Add in the fact that point guard Connor McCaffery didn’t practice Sunday with a stomach illness, and Iowa (playing its eighth game out of 10 away from Carver-Hawkeye Arena) is traveling to Lincoln on fumes.

Bohannon (hip) and Jack Nunge (ACL) are already done for the season, and Patrick McCaffery (illnesses) probably is, too. Cordell Pemsl has been mostly ineffective coming off knee surgery. Even walk-on Austin Ash isn’t available, as he is recovering from mononucleosis.

With Fredrick and Connor McCaffery ailing in Saturday’s 89-86 loss to Penn State, center Luka Garza (22.5 points, 10.1 rebounds a game) and swingman Joe Wieskamp (13.5 points, 5.8 rebounds) played all 20 minutes of the second half. That type of workload taxes Iowa's defense. It's not sustainable, but Fran McCaffery might not have any better options.

The situation could force him into a long-term strategy of ultra-light practices geared around film study, walk-through reps and shooting — as was the case Sunday — just to keep his available players as fresh as possible for games.

“It’s obviously something we’re all aware of. We’ll deal with it one day at a time, so to speak, because it’s an opportunity for somebody else to step up,” the 10th-year Iowa coach said, noting that former walk-on Riley Till is in line for some rare action Tuesday. “It’ll change things in how we prepare and how we play.

"Some of the walk-ons have to stay ready.”

Another unusual situation in Lincoln for the Hawkeyes.

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Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 25 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.