Leistikow: More positive COVID-19 tests in Iowa football; hoops doubleheader on Tuesday

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

It’s the week of Christmas, often a short slice of the college sports calendar that’s relatively subdued.

But in true 2020 fashion, the typical script is blown into smithereens. It feels busier than ever.

Iowa football players returned to the team facility Monday after accepting a bid to the Dec. 30 TransPerfect Music City Bowl, but minus their head coach — who is home after testing positive for COVID-19. Athletics director Gary Barta was conducting interviews after his day in the national spotlight as the College Football Playoff chairman. The No. 5-ranked Iowa men’s basketball team was preparing to open Big Ten Conference play Tuesday against Purdue. And the Iowa women are also home for an only-in-2020 1 p.m. Tuesday game against Western Illinois.

And, don’t forget, the Hawkeye men are playing on Christmas Day (Friday) at Minnesota, too.

Let’s go around the horn on these four topics.

Barta: Watching the COVID-19 numbers, but the decision to play (or not) is up to medical experts.

That’s an important point, that whether the Hawkeyes are cleared to play their scheduled game against Missouri at Nissan Stadium will depend on the percentages of positive tests among players, coaches and staff, as established by the Big Ten Conference and monitored by team doctor Andy Peterson and the University of Iowa’s infectious-disease representative James Torner.

Update:Iowa football pausing workouts after COVID-19 outbreak ahead of Music City Bowl

The UI on Monday reported 14 positive COVID-19 tests last week in athletics (which included multiple members of the football staff, Barta confirmed, including head coach Kirk Ferentz). Players were set to be tested upon their return to activities Monday.

Iowa players take the field prior to their 28-7 win against Wisconsin. Will that mark their final game of the 2020 season?

If the team seven-day rolling average of confirmed positive tests crosses a 5% rate and the total football population (athletes, coaches, staff) positivity crosses 7.5% (which would mean 13 or more positives out of roughly 170 "Tier 1" individuals), then Iowa would be mathematically forced to pause activities for at least seven days before reassessing.

“If we’re still within the percentages allowed by the Big Ten, then we’ll keep moving forward,” Barta said.

“If” remains the key word.

Considering the game is a week from Wednesday, any pause within the Hawkeye program would almost certainly end the feasibility of the game. And honestly, if there’s a forced pause, it would be the responsible decision by Iowa to pull the plug on the game altogether. It was reported Monday that the state of Tennessee has the highest COVID-19 positive rate per-capita in the U.S.; that's another reason to proceed with caution about this game, especially with up to 14,000 fans allowed to attend.  

For now, Barta is saying that “the goal and the plan is to play in the bowl.” He reaffirmed that the team plans to fly to Nashville the day before the game, as it would for a regular-season road trip.

“Anybody who is available to go on the 29th will be there in person,” Barta said. “And we’ll get ready to play a good Missouri team.”

Music City Bowl: Even if short-handed, Ferentz isn't treating the game like an exhibition.

Opt-out announcements were flooding social-media timelines Monday. For example, three North Carolina star players have pulled out of the Orange Bowl to prepare for the NFL Draft — further weakening that New Year’s Six game.

Iowa hadn’t announced anything as of Monday, but you could understand it if some of the Hawkeyes’ projected NFL picks would see more risk than reward by playing against a 5-5 Missouri squad on 10 days’ notice. Already on the other side, star Missouri linebacker Nick Bolton (a projected first-rounder) has declared for the draft.

Iowa defensive tackle Daviyon Nixon, the Big Ten Conference’s defensive player of the year, checked in at No. 10 overall in Mel Kiper Jr.’s latest big board; 42-game starter Alaric Jackson, first-team all-Big Ten at left tackle, has put plenty of good work on film over four years. And if the left ankle of Ihmir Smith-Marsette is still gimpy (he was in a boot following the Wisconsin game), the speedy wide receiver might not see the value in rushing back to the field.

And that doesn’t include possible COVID-19 absences. So, if (there's that word again) the game is played, we might see some backups for Iowa. But don’t expect Ferentz to treat this like an exhibition. That was one question I asked him Sunday, wondering if this might be a time to get backup quarterback Alex Padilla an extended look. That notion was shot down by the head coach, who has always held bowl games in high esteem.

“If we get a chance to play, we’re playing to win,” Ferentz said. “And I’m sure our opponent feels the same way. That’s the only reason you play.”

Caitlin Clark (29.8 points per game) is getting a lot of national love early in the women's basketball season but anticipates tougher challenges ahead in the Big Ten schedule.

Iowa women: Caitlin Clark toes the line between confident and cocky as the nation’s top scorer.

ESPN’s Charlie Crème floated the notion that Clark might not only be the best freshman in the nation, she might be the best player in the nation through five games. Clark (a Division I-high 29.8 points per game) acknowledged she saw that, but Iowa coach Lisa Bluder isn’t worried about the phenom from Dowling Catholic adopting an unhealthy cockiness.

“The team also knows she’s a special player, and they know she can do some special things,” Bluder said. “… She’s confident in her abilities and her work ethic, and she’s not cocky in the slightest. Once you go to that cockiness, then you’ve got problems. But that’s not an issue."

Clark said she plays “with a swag” that’s needed at the highest levels. She’s also leading the Big Ten Conference in assists (6.4 per game), showing that she understands the importance of getting her teammates involved. 

“It’s kind of a work in progress," Clark said. "In high school, it was all kind of (relying) on me. Just trusting my teammates more and more and relying on them more. We have really good players around me … and they’ve been performing at a high level.

“All I want to do is win. I think that’s the goal for everybody on this team.”

That goal shouldn’t be an issue in Tuesday’s matchup with 1-6 Western Illinois, which is Iowa’s lone game in an 18-day stretch after the Dec. 19 game at Ohio State was canceled. Bluder said Iowa (4-1, 1-1) tried to replace the game with a non-conference opponent but couldn’t work it out. Iowa returns home Dec. 31 against Rutgers.

Iowa men: Jordan Bohannon, CJ Fredrick are eyeing bounce-back performances.

The two starting guards had trouble getting into the flow vs. Gonzaga, and the Hawkeyes need their marksmanship to end a four-game series losing streak to Purdue (8 p.m. Tuesday, BTN).

Let’s start with Bohannon, whose 3-point success rate is at an uncharacteristically low 28.3% (13-for-46). He was 1-for-8 overall in Saturday’s 99-88 loss to No. 1 Gonzaga. It seems like the fifth-year senior has had a ton of 3s go in-and-out this season.

Iowa coach Fran McCaffery’s advice? “Just keep firing. … I have complete confidence in him. He takes good shots. He's done a good job running the offense.”

Getting aggressive offensively might help, too. Bohannon has attempted just two free throws this season. Seeing the ball go in the net might help his shooter’s mentality. And he’s one of the best shooters in Iowa history.

Fredrick, meanwhile, was saddled to the bench with two fouls with 13:48 left in the first half and didn’t return until the second half. He finished with eight points on 2-for-7 shooting. While he sat, Iowa’s one-point deficit mushroomed quickly. McCaffery said he considered bringing Fredrick back in the first half but decided against it.

“You want to be out there with your guys playing, and I wasn’t able to do that,” Fredrick said. “… When you get that second one, that’s Coach’s call. You just respect that and get ready for when your time comes.”

Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 26 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.