Leistikow: After latest key injury, Iowa's Fran McCaffery is running out of options
LINCOLN, Neb. — After exiting the visitors' locker room around 10:45 p.m. Tuesday at Pinnacle Bank Arena, Luka Garza’s head scanned the stat sheet from Iowa’s 76-70 loss at Nebraska.
He seemed puzzled, frustrated and maybe a little exhausted. Iowa had won the rebounding battle, 48-34, generated 17 assists to 11 turnovers and shot 64% from 2-point range.
It looked like a box score that should’ve produced a Hawkeye victory.
Except for that awful 3-point shooting — 4-for-33 … the Hawkeyes' fewest 3s made this season while tying the most for 3s attempted.
This loss is going to burn the Hawkeyes the rest of the season and perhaps on Selection Sunday. And the players knew that.
“If teams are going to play us like that, it’s not often we’re going to shoot as bad as we did today,” Garza said. “We’re going to kill teams like that. Especially with Joe Wieskamp … I’ve never seen him go 1-for-10.”
Wieskamp had spent a few days practicing with Adidas basketballs, the kind that Nebraska uses for home games. They have a different feel, but he entered confident.
But the lone remaining pure outside threat available to Fran McCaffery missed three 3-pointers on Iowa’s first three possessions, an anomaly for him on the way to a 10% shooting night from deep. (He entered as a career 42.2% shooter on 3s.)
“Shooters have those nights,” Wieskamp said. “I’m going to stay confident and keep shooting.”
That was the resounding message afterward from the stunned Hawkeyes, who had just dropped a game to the Big Ten Conference’s worst team, one that had lost home games to UC Riverside, Southern Utah, North Dakota and, most recently, by 17 points to Rutgers.
They say that, because they know without Jordan Bohannon (hip surgery) and now CJ Fredrick — whose stress reaction in his foot and McCaffery’s intent to be cautious with it leaving his return (and perhaps season) in limbo — might have to be their primary path to victory.
To make teams pay for ganging up on Garza, like Nebraska did.
“They had pretty much three guys on him every time he caught the ball,” sophomore guard Connor McCaffery said. “I’m not going to say three guys are going to be on him every time he catches it, but for the most part, he’s going to see a crowd the rest of the year. Every time he touches it.”
That means McCaffery — who did connect on a career-best three 3-pointers on seven attempts — has to be able to knock down consistent 3s.
Same with Joe Toussaint, who tried five of them without a success.
Same with Ryan Kriener and Garza, big men who can shoot it from deep, but combined for 0-for-7 behind the 3-point line Tuesday.
Those aren’t the primary 3-point options you’d like to see, but that’s what the Hawkeyes are left with, as injuries mount and with Garza getting more attention than ever as the Big Ten’s leading scorer and all-American candidate.
“If the other team tries to do that, I think we’ll be excited as shooters,” said Wieskamp, who still finished with a game-high 21 points as he found resourceful ways to get inside the lane for easier 2s. “Because we’re going to knock down those shots in the future.”
Iowa was a projected 6 seed in the NCAA Tournament last week and ranked No. 23 nationally. It had KenPom.com’s No. 3-rated adjusted offense, out of 353 teams. But that resume factored in sharpshooting deep threats Bohannon, the school’s career leader in 3s, and Fredrick, a cool freshman who's hit 50% of his collegiate 3-point tries.
Iowa dropped to 10-5 overall, 1-3 in the Big Ten on Tuesday. I am confident those marks would be 12-3 and 3-1 if Bohannon was healthy, and we’d be talking about a seismic home game Friday against No. 14 Maryland.
The Hawkeyes missed his game-closing ability in a down-to-the-wire 89-86 loss against Penn State, and he would’ve tortured Fred Hoiberg’s zone Tuesday night.
“It’s definitely an adjustment for us. Obviously, Joe (Toussaint)’s a freshman. He’s learning as he goes. And he’s done a pretty good job,” Wieskamp said. “But Jordan Bohannon’s one of the clutchest players in Iowa history, so it hurts not having him in late-game situations.”
Even if Fredrick could’ve gone against Nebraska, Iowa probably wins.
But that excuse game is one we on the outside can discuss.
Fran McCaffery was not having it after Tuesday’s loss.
“Everybody has injuries. Everybody has sickness. Everybody has tough stretches, where there’s a lot of road games and a lot of travel,” the 10th-year Iowa coach said. “We have other guys.
“We didn’t play as well as we have been playing. And I’m not going to put that all on the fact that CJ Fredrick was not on the floor. Because it wasn’t like we played 4-on-5. Somebody else was playing. And we’ve got to play better.”
So, this one was regrettable. It stings.
It’s time to regroup. There are 16 Big Ten games remaining.
Garza, for one, is putting more on his shoulders, if that’s possible after he fought triple-teams for 16 points and 18 rebounds in Lincoln.
“I’m going to break down the film and watch myself,” Garza said. “Teams are going to think (Nebraska’s plan) worked (Tuesday), so they’ll probably use that in the future. So, I’m going to see what I can do to try to help our team out.”
If Fredrick is shelved for a while, Fran McCaffery is out of viable options. His bench now consists of Cordell Pemsl, Bakari Evelyn and Riley Till — a trio that contributed four points Tuesday.
Maybe he needs to slow the pace more. Maybe he needs to be more strategic in using his timeouts to buy rest for his core players.
He has little choice but to lean on his son (a career 28% shooter from 3-point range) and Toussaint (a freshman who has four 3-pointers on 22 attempts, for 18%, this season) to help relieve the attention Garza and Wieskamp are going to face going forward.
It may not sound like a winning strategy, but it might be the only strategy.
“I always tell the guys, ‘If you’re open, shoot the ball,’” Fran McCaffery said. “I want complete confidence.”
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.