Leistikow: With Iowa's Big Three rolling like this, Big Ten title can become a reality

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY, Ia. — The score uncomfortably tied early in Sunday’s second half against Minnesota, Iowa all-American center Luka Garza found himself crowded by defenders on the right side of the basket. The senior alertly spun around, knowing where his point guard would be.

Garza flung a pass to the left corner, where Jordan Bohannon was all alone. And after five years, opponents know by now you shouldn’t leave Bohannon alone. And Bohannon made the Gophers pay, as he did all afternoon in many ways at Carver-Hawkeye Arena.

The very next trip down the floor, Joe Wieskamp followed with a smooth 3-pointer on an assist from Bohannon. Six points in 29 seconds, and the Hawkeyes were suddenly on their way to flexing their muscles against another Big Ten Conference opponent.

And this time against Minnesota, there was no collapse as seventh-ranked Iowa emerged a 86-71 winner against the No. 17 Gophers.

This one felt good for the Hawkeyes, whose only Big Ten loss came against these Gophers on Christmas Day — when they blew a seven-point lead in the final minute of regulation, then lost in overtime.

“A couple of (Gophers) may have talked crap to us as we were going to the locker room,” Bohannon reported after Sunday’s atoning win. “I’m not going to say any names, but that definitely provided fire for myself coming into this game.”

Added the normally reserved Wieskamp: “This game was kind of personal for us.”

Jordan Bohannon smiles as he and Joe Wieskamp, left, come the bench as Iowa walked away from Carver-Hawkeye Arena with an 86-71 victory.

The end result: Iowa’s Big Three got rolling, all at the same time.

Garza had 33 points, his 11th career 30-point game, on 13-for-20 shooting. When Iowa needed a clutch basket — like when Minnesota sliced an 18-point deficit to five in the second half — Garza delivered. Iowa outscored Minnesota, 18-8, over the last 5:06.

Wieskamp scored 20 on 7-of-9 shooting to go with six important rebounds. As Iowa coach Fran McCaffery said, to beat Minnesota your guards have to rebound.

And Bohannon … was something else. The fifth-year senior continued his hot streak with 19 more points, but more impressively he posted career-highs of 14 assists (two shy of Cal Wulfsberg’s school-record 16 in 1976) and seven rebounds in his 125th career game.

Oh, and he played 36 minutes without a turnover — the part of his line he was most proud of.

“From the opening tip today, he was pushing the ball and finding people,” McCaffery said. “His decisions when to shoot, when to drive, when to move it, when to throw it into the post. It was practically perfect.

“I haven’t seen too many lines like that.”

Wieskamp marveled at the Bohannon-to-Garza connection. Of Garza’s 13 buckets, 10 came on assists from Bohannon.

Iowa's Joe Wieskamp (10) makes a 3-point basket during a NCAA Big Ten Conference men's basketball game against Minnesota, Sunday, Jan. 10, 2021, at Carver-Hawkeye Arena in Iowa City, Iowa.

As Garza astutely noted, when the Hawkeyes are running in transition, opponents can’t double-team him. He was simply beating Minnesota big man Liam Robbins up the floor, time and time again. And Bohannon was finding him.

“I felt like I was just getting some conditioning in, watching him throw it up to Luka and he’d lay it up,” Wieskamp quipped.

But Wieskamp was special himself, a major development for the Hawkeyes. He had been averaging 8.0 points a game during Iowa’s three-game win streak and was finding himself sitting on the bench more often than he’d like.

When he and Bohannon are humming, that makes life easier for Garza … and miserable for opponents.

The Big Three scored 72 points. Minnesota scored 71.

“The second half, there were a couple times they wanted to double team but they couldn’t because they were worried about the guy they were guarding,” Garza said. “And that gave me some more space to be able to operate.”

Iowa center Luka Garza (55) catches a pass as Minnesota forward Brandon Johnson (23) defends during a NCAA Big Ten Conference men's basketball game, Sunday, Jan. 10, 2021, at Carver-Hawkeye Arena in Iowa City, Iowa.

Iowa is now 11-2 overall and 5-1 in the Big Ten Conference. We’re essentially at the halfway point of the 27-game regular season, and if Sunday’s game was any indication, the program veterans are starting to take over.

CJ Fredrick needs to get going, yes. After just two points Sunday, he's 5-for-16 over Iowa's last three games. 

But if this team keeps getting this kind of production from Garza, Wieskamp and Bohannon, the sky's the limit.

Sunday's game was part of a five-game stretch with four home games. The next four are against opponents with a combined 8-15 conference record — Thursday here against Michigan State, Jan. 18 at Northwestern, Jan. 21 vs. Indiana, Jan. 24 at Nebraska. Those are all winnable; projects none of those games to be closer than eight points. And Iowa needs to keep winning. Michigan remains atop the league at 5-0, with Iowa a half-game back and 4-1 Wisconsin (which plays Michigan on Tuesday) and 5-2 Illinois (after Sunday night's surprising home loss to Maryland) firmly in the mix. That's the clear top four in the race, with every other conference team already having at least three losses.

Iowa guard Jordan Bohannon (3) takes the ball up court during a NCAA Big Ten Conference men's basketball game against Minnesota, Sunday, Jan. 10, 2021, at Carver-Hawkeye Arena in Iowa City, Iowa.

How to emerge from that top four?

Keep relying on the Big Three.

“To be 5-1 at this point, we’re happy with it but not satisfied," Wieskamp said. "We want to win a Big Ten title. We’ve got to take it one game at a time. We know we’ve got a good Michigan State team coming in here Thursday night.”

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.