Leistikow: Motivated Hawkeyes manhandle Huskers in Fred Hoiberg's Iowa homecoming

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY, Ia. — Fred Hoiberg, coaching for the first time in Iowa in almost five years, knew that this outcome might be brewing after he saw the Hawkeyes were blistered by 36 points Wednesday night at Purdue.

“I didn’t like that. That wasn’t a good thing,” the first-year Nebraska coach said with a chuckle. “I knew they’d come out with some fire.”

Iowa, ranked 17th, needed a tomato-can opponent Saturday night at Carver-Hawkeye Arena. It got one, and it just so happened that it was coached by the guy who was 5-1 all-time against Fran McCaffery.

“We wanted to come out and do what Purdue did to us to Nebraska,” guard CJ Fredrick said after the Hawkeyes rolled to a 96-72 win that afforded key starters to sit the final 10 minutes. "So, it was more of a statement for us.”

Iowa’s motivation was escalated even more, knowing it had lost to the Cornhuskers 76-70 on Jan. 7 in Lincoln.

Hoiberg’s team hasn’t won since. Saturday marked its eighth straight loss, and a road trip to first-place Maryland is next. It trailed by as many as 38 points.

“It was really fun. Yeah. It was a great game," The Mayor quipped when asked about his homecoming of sorts. He last coached a game in Iowa on March 2, 2015 — a 77-70 Iowa State win against Oklahoma at Hilton Coliseum.

There’s little doubt among people in the know that Nebraska basketball is at the bottom of a massive rebuild under Hoiberg. He’s dealing with a bare-cupboard roster after taking over for Tim Miles. He’s got sit-out transfers Dalano Banton (from Western Kentucky), Shamiel Stevenson (Pittsburgh) and Derrick Walker (Tennessee) and highly talented junior-college transfer Teddy Allen signed. Point guard Cam Mack looks like a player. 

It took Hoiberg a little bit to figure it out at Iowa State, too, if you’ll recall. His first Cyclones team in 2010-11 (which coincided with McCaffery’s first year at Iowa) finished 12th out of then-12 in the Big 12 Conference. The next four seasons, the Cyclones were dancing in the NCAA Tournament. They won back-to-back Big 12 tournament titles before Hoiberg departed for the Chicago Bulls.

“We’re obviously at the beginning stages of where we are right now with our program,” said Hoiberg, whose team dropped to 7-16 overall and 2-10 in Big Ten Conference play. “I am excited about our future. Whatever happens the rest of the year, I'm excited about what we have. 

“I look at my time at Iowa State, we lost … 10 in a row that first year. And we got it turned around pretty quickly."

The rest of the season will be a struggle for Hoiberg’s Huskers. They’ll improve.

“He’s as good a coach as there is in the game,” McCaffery said. “He’s got a very professional approach to how he does things, and his players respond to him.”

But this was going to be Iowa’s night before 15,056 friendly fans.

It had to be, after the 104-68 bludgeoning at Purdue and players insisting that they would come out firing against the Cornhuskers.

Fred Hoiberg and Fran McCaffery greet each other before the Hawkeyes' 96-72 win against Nebraska.

That much was clear early on, when Fredrick drove the lane, hovered in mid-air with no place to go and rifled a desperation pass off the neck area of Joe Wieskamp. The basketball caromed into the hands of Luka Garza for a two-handed dunk.

That much was clear at the end of the first half, when Fredrick flicked a one-handed shot from, oh, about 28 feet. All net for a 41-30 Hawkeye halftime lead.

“Basically, just threw it up and it went in,” Fredrick said.

And the floodgates opened completely in the second half, as Wieskamp (career-high 30 points) and Garza (22 points, his ninth straight game with 20-plus, and eight rebounds) were cruising into the lane for easy dunks as if it was a warm-up drill.

Walk-on Austin Ash rained in a pair of 3s to boost Iowa’s lead to a staggering 86-48 with 6 minutes, 54 seconds to go.

"They were phenomenal tonight. Wieskamp was incredible," Hoiberg said in his first game at Carver since a 90-75 win in 2014, a game marked by Georges Niang blowing a kiss to the Hawkeye crowd. "... And Garza, in my mind, is as good a player as there is in the country right now. He just plays so hard.

“The thing I like most is his intensity and effort and relentlessness. It’s a good lesson for our young players.”

This night was exactly what Iowa needed, and it was inevitable.

“The last two days in practice,” Fredrick noted, “is probably the best (the offense) has been all season.”

Earlier Saturday, the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee revealed its top 16 overall seeds. Even though Iowa wasn’t among them, committee chairman Kevin White said the Hawkeyes (along with LSU and Kentucky) were considered for a top-four seed. That’s significant, and a strong sign that even with that Purdue loss, the Hawkeyes are seen favorably by the folks who will piece together the 68-team bracket in mid-March.

The message to be taken away: You're on the right track. Keep adding wins.

Against Hoiberg’s raw material, that was a formality. It gets tougher from here for Iowa (17-7, 8-5), which moved into a fourth-place tie with preseason No. 1 Michigan State.

But on Saturday, it was time to exhale. Garza checked out for good with 10:18 remaining. Wieskamp was pulled seven seconds later. Fredrick sat the final 9:02. After playing five games in 13 days, players will get Sunday and Monday off before preparing for a two-game road trip to Indiana (Thursday) and Minnesota (Sunday).

Even if you're a hardened Hawkeye fan who dislikes anything Cyclone, you can sympathize with Hoiberg. He doesn't have much to work with. But he remained calm and measured, coaching his guys, even down 30-plus in the second half. 

"I've played on teams where we've gone on slides, and the only way out of it is to continue to work," Hoiberg said, "to stay together, to keep battling every day."

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.