Leistikow: Why not Iowa? Hawkeyes have the firepower, mindset to contend for Big Ten title
IOWA CITY, Ia. — Fran McCaffery on Wednesday night called this Iowa basketball team “as enjoyable as any I've had” in 24 seasons as a Division I head coach.
If you could walk into the house where Luka Garza lives, you’d probably understand one of many reasons why.
There are three TVs in the five-bedroom house, where Garza resides with Connor McCaffery and walk-ons Austin Ash, Michael Baer and Nico Hobbs. On any given night, at least two of them are showing whatever college basketball game is on. They watch all the Big Ten games.
“We’re all really big basketball fans. We watch a ton of games. It gets us prepared,” Garza said after No. 19 Iowa’s 85-80 victory against No. 25 Rutgers, which extended the Hawkeyes’ winning streak to four games. “When we go into scouting reports, we already know who everybody is. We’ve been watching all year.”
These guys love basketball. They’re all-in for it.
You can see that play out on the floor, too, with every fist pump, with every charge taken, with every bench celebration following a 3-pointer.
Fran McCaffery described how his 14-5 team, which as of Friday was No. 21 in NCAA NET rankings and No. 13 in KenPom.com's, thirsts for coaching and processes information with an eager attitude.
“True students of the game,” the head coach said. “When they're watching film, it's not like, ‘OK, coach. We’ll be done in 15 minutes. It's ‘OK, I got it.’ And then I'll ask questions. It's not like I'm talking and they're sitting there half asleep.”
This doesn’t sound like the makeup of a team that is going to fade down the stretch.
And this most certainly doesn't look like a team that'll go down without a fight.
So … let’s go ahead and say it.
The Hawkeyes are legitimate contenders to win the program’s first regular-season Big Ten championship in 41 years.
Of course, there are eight to 12 contenders right now in the balanced Big Ten.
With its loss at Indiana on Thursday night, Michigan State dropped into a first-place tie with Illinois at 6-2 in league play. One game back, there’s a five-way tie for third place at 5-3 between Indiana, Maryland, Rutgers, Wisconsin … and Iowa. Penn State is 4-4, Purdue 3-5 and don't forget 11th-place Michigan and 12th-place Ohio State (both previously in the national top five).
Garza, the 6-foot-11 junior, is playing like a first-team all-American (his 23.2 points per game rank fourth nationally). Wing players Joe Wieskamp and CJ Fredrick are playing high-level ball, giving the Hawkeyes a Big 3 scoring punch that puts immense pressure on opposing defenses.
Rutgers hadn’t allowed any opponent to top 65 points during an 8-1 stretch heading into Carver-Hawkeye Arena on Wednesday. Iowa racked up 85 on the Scarlet Knights. It has the nation’s third-most efficient offense, according to KenPom.com; Michigan State (11th) and Minnesota (17th) are the only other Big Ten teams in the top 20.
In a league where every possession is a grind, the Hawkeyes’ offense stands out as uniquely dominant and capable to make a run.
“I don’t think there’s a team in the Big Ten we can’t beat,” Garza said.
Of course, Garza isn’t going to say, “We’re playing for second” to preseason No. 1 Michigan State. He believes Iowa can win it, while also being realistic that this stretch of the schedule can be the most difficult on the path to the top.
With so many teams in contention, there will be no easy outs the rest of the way in this 20-game Big Ten schedule. Iowa could go 2-10 in its final 12 games or 11-1.
“You really have to stay composed, especially on the road and lock into every single game,” Garza said. “At this point, when you’re halfway through, every team is going to give you their best every single night, because they’re all in the race.
“We beat some good teams so far, but it’s about to get really real.”
Big Ten road teams are 11-44 this season — a .200 winning percentage. Iowa has one of those wins, at Northwestern, against three losses. KenPom.com projects the Hawkeyes to lose all six of their remaining road games (Maryland, Purdue, Indiana, Minnesota, Michigan State and Illinois) and win all six at home (Monday against Wisconsin, then Illinois, Nebraska, Ohio State, Penn State and Purdue).
“Holding ground on our home court and getting all those wins,” Wieskamp said, “then going on the road and getting a couple, and I think we’ll be just fine.”
If I’m spit-balling, I think a 15-5 record will be good enough to win this year's rugged Big Ten. Maybe even 14-6 in a multi-way tie. If it’s 15-5, that means Iowa probably needs to go 10-0 at home (it’s already 4-0) and steal four of the final six on the road.
It’s a tough ask, but … why not?
The last time Iowa won a Big Ten regular season title, Lute Olson’s 1978-79 team shared the top spot with Purdue and Magic Johnson-led Michigan State with a 13-5 league mark.
This year’s race looks similarly there for the taking.
Why not Iowa?
Or, if you want to get cute, think B1G.
This team is. And should be. And it’s no doubt going to have fun taking its shot at the top.
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.