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Leistikow: Why beating Purdue was Iowa's most encouraging win of the season

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY, Ia. — In the first half of its highly anticipated Big Ten Conference opener, the Iowa men’s basketball team experienced a scoring drought of 5 minutes, 32 seconds.

In the second half, the nation’s fifth-ranked team that averages 98.7 points a game went scoreless for another span of 4:35.

Yet despite those 10 minutes without a point, the Hawkeyes had more than enough to outmuscle to beat visiting Purdue, 70-55, Tuesday night at Carver-Hawkeye Arena.

“We got stops, and we didn't panic,” Iowa coach Fran McCaffery said. “It's not like we're never going to score again. We're going to score. And we did.”

Iowa’s seventh victory of the 2020-21 season might not have been the prettiest sight at times. But it also might have been its most impressive win to date. This is exactly the type of grit that the Hawkeyes (7-1, 1-0) needed to show if they want to accomplish the biggest of goals.

Coaches told Joe Wieskamp he needed to help out on the boards against a physical and big Purdue team, and he did, grabbing nine in Iowa's 70-55 win.

More from Iowa's win over Purdue:

We know they can score, with their all-American center and an array of 3-point shooters to comprise KenPom.com’s No. 1 adjusted offense in the country.

But we needed to see them win against a traditionally physical and tough opponent while having a substandard shooting night. The Hawkeyes connected on just 42.9% of their attempts and were 18 points below their previous low for the season. Yet they won comfortably, holding Purdue 20 points below its average.

Iowa showed it can defend. Who knew?

The Hawkeyes jumped from No. 82 to No. 62 in KenPom’s all-important adjusted defense ratings after two stifling hours against Matt Painter’s Boilers, who beat No. 20 Ohio State by seven in their Big Ten opener and had owned Iowa by an average margin of 21.0 points in a four-game series winning streak.

“It’s an impressive win for us,” center Luka Garza accurately said, “and an impressive effort in multiple ways.”

Maybe to those watching on TV, it was frustrating at times.

To me, it was the most encouraging Hawkeye performance of the season.

Iowa isn't going to beat everyone in the Big Ten by a score of 100-90. It’s going to have to win games like Tuesday's, when points are at a premium and the outcome hinges on which team snaps up more loose basketballs. In this rugged league, off nights are typically punished. Weak teams are exposed.

Beating Purdue for the first time in 47½ months on an off night revealed Iowa's veteran strength.

“Honestly, my first two years they’ve embarrassed us, every time we’ve played them,” junior swingman Joe Wieskamp said. “They’ve outhustled us, destroyed us on the glass every game. This is one we really wanted to come in and send a message. First game of the Big Ten, on our homecourt against a good Purdue team.”

No player Tuesday demonstrated Iowa's progress more than Wieskamp.

The Muscatine product has been excellent in his first two years at Iowa, but he’s also experienced adversity. Purdue has always been a tough opponent for him. In three previous meetings, Wieskamp was held in check against the Boilermakers — averaging 9.0 points.

I distinctly remember visiting with Wieskamp after the Hawkeyes’ senior-day loss to Purdue — their only Big Ten defeat at Carver-Hawkeye Arena last season. He was frustrated that Purdue defenders manhandled him and took him out of his preferred game.

Wieskamp was a different player Tuesday; an aggressor. He scrapped for rebounds — he had seven in the first half alone and nine for the game. Even though some of Wieskamp’s early shots trickled off the rim, he refused to crawl into a shell. He kept taking it to Purdue, an important sign of growth in his development.

For the game, he finished with 17 points on 6-for-13 shooting and looked like an all-Big Ten player, largely behind powerful drives to the lane.

“He was really active on the glass. I thought he moved without the ball extremely well,” McCaffery said. “Seemed like he was always open, cutting hard and finishing and getting fouled.”

When Wieskamp is playing like this, Iowa is almost unstoppable. Because Garza is going to do Garza things, as he did Tuesday. With 22 points and nine rebounds, Garza notched his 17th straight Big Ten game with at least 20 points. When Garza and Wieskamp clicked together a year ago, Iowa was at its best. Now the Hawkeyes have Jordan Bohannon and Jack Nunge back from injuries to help them, not to mention CJ Fredrick (a team-best plus-25 on Tuesday) to lead a nine-man McCaffery rotation that's working.

“He did a great job the whole game. He was really tough,” Garza proudly said of Wieskamp. “When he plays that strong and that aggressive, no team can guard him. It just makes him a whole different player and makes us a whole different team.”

Garza added this, which should give Hawkeye fans everywhere a lot of encouragement.

“It kind of reminds me of my sophomore-to-junior growth, in terms of the mental challenge of the game,” said Garza, who became a national revelation as a junior as a consensus all-American. “… I got to a point mentally where nothing was going to stop me from going out and playing my best.”

The postgame locker-room scene was hardly raucous. It was businesslike, consistent with a mature group that has big goals.

They knew. This was one Big Ten game. An important one. But still ... 19 more are ahead, including a 7 p.m. Christmas night tussle at 7-1 Minnesota.

If the Hawkeyes are going to top 13 other teams to earn their first regular-season Big Ten title in 42 years, they’re going to have to do exactly what they did Tuesday: Win, by any means necessary.

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.