Leistikow: 5 things Iowa can do to unlock a satisfying Big Ten Tournament

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

Its opener of the Big Ten Conference men’s tournament would be an inopportune time to cement the Iowa basketball team’s first three-game losing streak of the season.

The last thing the 25th-ranked Hawkeyes want to do is limp into the be-all, end-all NCAA Tournament, still searching for their first win of March. (They were last victorious on Leap Day, against Penn State.)

So, obviously, first on fifth-seeded Iowa’s Big Ten tourney checklist should be to secure a victory in Thursday’s 1:30 p.m. game against Wednesday night’s Minnesota-Northwestern winner. Iowa (20-11) will be favored to do so; it was 3-0 against those teams during the regular season and will be catching one of them 18 hours after the conclusion of their opening contest in Indy.

But what else should top the Hawkeyes’ to-do list at Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis?

Funny you should ask.

No. 1: More Ryan Kriener, a little less Luka Garza.

It may seem sacrilege to call for bench time for Iowa's first Big Ten player of the year since 1968, but Garza’s barely been coming off the floor of late ... and even though he's well-conditioned, Iowa needs to conserve his legs as much as possible without sacrificing team performance ahead of the NCAAs.

Against Illinois, Garza played 39 minutes, 57 seconds of a 40-minute game. He has played 38:29 or more in four of Iowa's last seven games. That’s not an ideal workload for anyone who is 6-foot-11 and 260 pounds, let alone over the course of what could be a four-game tournament for Iowa if all goes well.

When Garza picked himself off the floor after his final shot attempt was blocked in Sunday night’s 78-76 loss at Illinois, he looked spent.

There’s an easy solution to get Garza some rest: Kriener.

One of the Hawkeyes' toughest players and best rebounders was only on the floor in Champaign for 11:30. He should be playing twice that much. Granted, he is prone to foul trouble. But the 6-10, 255 forward is a proven asset on both ends of the floor. He can handle more time at the "5" position while Garza gets much-deserved rest.

And by the way, there’s plenty of evidence that Garza can be more dominant the fresher he stays. At Northwestern, he spent the bulk of the first half on the bench in foul trouble. He tore up the Wildcats in the second half and finished with 27 points in 24 minutes.

At Minnesota, he scored 24 points in 27 minutes, and Kriener was an excellent foil for big man Daniel Oturo. After first-half foul trouble, Garza roared out of the gates in the second half and finished strong, hitting a big 3-pointer late to help push Iowa to a big road win.

Fran McCaffery can get Garza a calculated four or five minutes of rest (maybe before/after the under-12 and under-4 timeouts) in the first half of Thursday’s game.

Get Garza down to 34 minutes, and the rest of the eight-man rotation can go like this: Joe Wieskamp, 32; CJ Fredrick, 30; Connor McCaffery, 28; Kriener and Joe Toussaint, 24 each; Bakari Evelyn, 16; Cordell Pemsl, 12.

Joe Wieskamp has seen his scoring average drop from 15.4 to 14.0 over just the past six games.

No. 2: Bring one Joe off the bench, don’t forget the other.

Sit Garza? Bench Wieskamp? I'm not going crazy. (At least I don't think so ...)

There's about a 0.1% chance McCaffery will do it, considering Wieskamp is a third-team all-Big Ten pick and has started all 66 games of his Hawkeye career: But why not try bringing Wieskamp off the bench in Thursday’s game? If it doesn't work, start him next time. If it does, then you've got him going.

It's not a slap in the face. And his minutes don’t have to deteriorate (he’s played 30-plus in seven straight and despite his scoring struggles, he does many good things). But it’s worth seeing how Wieskamp, who is 14-for-53 (26%) from the floor over Iowa’s last six games, responds to a change in approach. He’s admitted he has put too much pressure on himself; so try taking some of that pressure off.

A starting five of Toussaint, Fredrick, McCaffery, Kriener and Garza isn’t a big risk. Maybe after the first TV timeout, insert one of your best all-around players as a fresh, super sub. The steady scoring will return for Wieskamp at some point; Iowa needs him now, though, and there’s not much time left to wait out this slump. If Iowa can get Wieskamp going, this is a Sweet 16-capable team.

As for the other Joe? Toussaint was curiously on the bench for the final 13:59 of Sunday’s game, despite looking like Iowa’s second-best player on the court. He had 14 points in 19 minutes and was doing an excellent job of putting pressure on Illinois’ defense with his quick dribble-drives.

Illinois showed what a play-making guard (in Ayo Dosunmu) can mean in crunch time of a tight game. That’s not to compare Toussaint to an all-Big Ten player, but at the very least Fran McCaffery needs to keep trusting his exciting freshman instead of forgetting about him.

No. 3: Focus on hustle plays, particularly near the defensive glass.

The painful part of last week’s 0-2 performance was that neither opponent shot particularly well from 3-point range. Purdue went 8-for-27 (29.6%) from 3; Illinois went 7-for-24 (29.2%). But Purdue collected 21 offensive rebounds at Carver-Hawkeye Arena, and the Illini snagged 12.

That means Iowa only secured 59% of defensive-rebound opportunities (48 of 81), and those extra possessions led to Purdue and Illinois attempting 20 more shots than Iowa. There are your ballgames.

Much of rebounding is about desire … and energy. The minutes conversation outlined above, I believe, goes hand-in-hand with many of the second-chance opportunities Iowa has been yielding of late. But there have also been plenty of instances of early-game rebounding woes for the Hawkeyes, and tired legs can’t be blamed there.

Bottom line: Rebound.

Iowa ranks 12th in the Big Ten in opponent offensive rebounds (31%). Make it a priority to allow fewer than 10 offensive rebounds in Thursday’s opener (something Iowa had done only once, against Michigan State of all teams, in its last 11 games), and go from there.

It’s a lingering issue that must be a point of emphasis in Indy.

No. 4: Control the emotions, get down to business.

Under Fran McCaffery's leadership, Iowa players are typically good at maintaining a professional, game-plan-centered approach against each opponent.

But there is currently a lot of built-up Hawkeye frustration, which can be distracting. Wieskamp was upset about the push-offs by Purdue, not to mention his personal slump. Fredrick said he’s never been grabbed as much as he was Sunday at Illinois; he was held to three points and got a technical foul. Connor McCaffery was agitated for the second straight time by the Illini and got a T of his own.

For whatever reason, it seems like officiating this time of year transitions into "let 'em play," sometimes until emotions spill over. And that hurts a team like Iowa, which relies on free-flowing movement and the most efficient offense in the Big Ten, and helps hands-on defensive teams like Michigan State and, yes, Illinois. But the Hawkeyes need to understand that this is March, and they must adjust through such moments.

And if they advance past Minnesota/Northwestern and face the Illini for the second time in six days? Whoo, boy. That'll be fun.

The Hawkeyes have proven they can score consistently against the Illini, but they can’t let officiating inconsistencies disrupt their mindset. They led by 10 points at Illinois but went more than six minutes in the first half between buckets, then gave up an 23-4 run early in Sunday’s second half.

Sure, play with emotions, should a Round 3 matchup with Illinois occur. But keep them in check.

Fran McCaffery and the Hawkeyes must take a measured approach into Indianapolis and not let emotions take control, especially if there's a Round 3 rematch with Illinois on Friday.

No. 5: Win two tournament games for the first time in the 10-year McCaffery era.

Iowa looked bad against Purdue, but that's been the only real clunker of the last six games. To be clear, the four prior checklist items are not to say the sky is falling. Far from it. But they all lead up to the dust-gathering fact that Iowa hasn't been to a Saturday semifinal of the Big Ten Tournament since 2006.

McCaffery is 4-9 in the Big Ten Tournament: 1-0 on Wednesdays, 3-6 on Thursdays, 0-3 on Fridays. He has never won against a higher seed at the Big Tens (0-5).

Winning for the first time on a Friday would also go a long way in helping Iowa solidify its position as a No. 6 seed for next week's NCAA Tournament. That's where had Iowa as of Tuesday morning. Being a 6 presents a historically better path to the Sweet 16 than a 7 through 10.

A 6 seed has made the Sweet 16 on 42 occasions vs. 27 times for the 7 seed vs. 12 for the 8 seed vs. only eight for 9 seeds. You get the idea.

The good news for Iowa: This team has a different brand of toughness than past McCaffery teams, not to mention a national player of the year candidate. It's got the makings of a tournament run, either this week or next or both.

And here's something to consider: For finishing in a four-way tie for fifth place at 11-9 in Big Ten play, Iowa's tournament draw is about as friendly as you could imagine. If higher seeds prevail, it has beaten every team it would face to get to Sunday's final. It's hardly a stretch to imagine No. 1 seed Wisconsin, riding an eight-game win streak, getting knocked off by the Michigan-Rutgers winner. If Iowa can get the best of Illinois on a neutral floor — hey, three of McCaffery's four Big Ten Tournament wins are against these very Illini — perhaps it's playing another opponent playing its third game in three days to get to Sunday's 2:30 p.m. final.

Pack a few tweaks, some ice and extra clothes for Indy. And pack a little hope, too, that things come together for a surprising run near the end of the Hawkeyes' overall pleasantly surprising season.

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.