Leistikow: Hawkeyes show CBS audience in January why they're built for March

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

EVANSTON, Ill. — For the second time in 30 days, CBS showcased the high-scoring Iowa basketball team in a primo 11 a.m. weekend time slot.

The first time, the Hawkeyes scored 88 points but gave up 99. Sure, the opponent was No. 1 Gonzaga, but they looked lost on defense. Jordan Bohannon looked a step slow and was held to two points on 1-of-8 shooting. The moment looked too big for freshman bench players Keegan Murray and Patrick McCaffery; they combined for one point and one rebound.

My, what a difference a month makes.

Nobody can rightfully sell that Northwestern is anything close to Gonzaga. But the Hawkeyes clearly are a much better team now than they were Dec. 19 in Sioux Falls, South Dakota.

On Sunday, the Hawkeyes showed a national audience why most consider them a top-five team and Final Four contender. They whipped Northwestern, 96-73, with an onslaught that highlighted the improvement this team's made in a month.

“We know that if we all play well,” said forward Jack Nunge, one of five Hawkeyes to score in double figures at Welsh-Ryan Arena, “there’s not anybody that can beat us in the country.”

Luka Garza (55) didn't score a point in the second half, but that didn't matter. Iowa routed Northwestern, 96-73, and Garza rested the final 11:59.

Iowa has now won five straight games; three of them on the road and four by double digits. The Hawkeyes are the new No. 1 nationally in Ken Pomeroy’s adjusted offensive efficiency (Gonzaga is No. 2), and they’ve inched their way to No. 69 in defensive efficiency — still not great, but much better than when it soared into the 90s after a 102-95 overtime loss Dec. 25 at Minnesota.

Since? No Iowa opponent has topped 75 points, a notable accomplishment for a team with a reputation for shaky defense.

Bohannon stayed hot. After a 17-for-61 start to the season from 3-point range, he’s 22-for-35 from distance (62.9%) during this five-game streak. He's been a major reason why Iowa is likely to move up a spot to at least No. 4 in Monday’s Associated Press poll, maybe to No. 3. (It’s been No. 8 in the coaches’ poll but should move into the top five after losses by the four teams in front of them.)

With Bohannon humming, opponents are struggling to keep the offensive pace with Iowa’s starting five. Even with Northwestern hitting six of its first 11 3-pointers, the score was still just 28-28.

Jan 17, 2021; Evanston, Illinois, USA; Iowa Hawkeyes guard Jordan Bohannon (3) dribbles the ball against Northwestern Wildcats guard Anthony Gaines (11) during the first half at Welsh-Ryan Arena.

But when Fran McCaffery can go to his bench and see the lead extended … that’s a major luxury. We saw it at Maryland last week, and we saw it Sunday. Spark plays from Nunge and Murray, in particular, spurred Iowa to a 21-8 half-ending run.

The starters took over to start the second half, then most of them rested for the final 10 minutes.

“It’s kind of been what’s made this different,” McCaffery said of his bench play. “Regardless of what lineup is out there, those guys are producing. A lot of times, you go to your bench and those guys are effective. But you don’t always get offense.”

Sunday, Nunge brought 12 points. Murray did it all, with eight points on 4-of-4 shooting, seven rebounds, two assists and two blocks. Patrick McCaffery (five points) might be the most improved player in the rotation. Joe Toussaint provided a hard-charging five points, five rebounds and three assists in his 13 minutes.

As a result: All-American Luka Garza played just 24 minutes. Joe Wieskamp played 27, Bohannon 25 and CJ Fredrick and Connor McCaffery 23. They combined for 22-of-36 shooting (9-of-18 from 3), 16 assists and two turnovers.

Jan 17, 2021; Evanston, Illinois, USA; Iowa Hawkeyes forward Keegan Murray (15) makes an offensive rebound against Northwestern Wildcats guard Anthony Gaines (11)  during the first half at Welsh-Ryan Arena.

That efficiency is huge, considering Garza and Wieskamp were playing 35 to 39 minutes regularly a year ago … and knowing where the Hawkeyes are and what’s ahead.

Iowa players were excited Sunday to know they were tied for first place with Michigan in the Big Ten standings at 6-1 in conference play (12-2 overall). They want to become the first Hawkeye team since 1978-79 to win or share a regular-season Big Ten championship.

“It’s huge,” Fredrick said. “We set goals before the season, and that was one of the goals.”

Getting there is a marathon, though, not a sprint. The more Iowa can rely on everyone as it’s done during this five-game win streak, the less likelihood there is of tired legs and anyone uttering the phrase “Fran Fade” come late February.

The Hawkeyes might've forced CBS viewers to flip the channel late in Sunday's rout. But they also proved why they're built for the long haul.

This is Iowa’s best Big Ten start since Fran McCaffery’s 2015-16 team started 7-0 in league play and then 10-1. But that group finished 12-6 in the Big Ten and was a shell of its earlier self in March. I covered that team; they looked tired at the end.

This veteran team has the maturity to understand it’s accomplished a good amount to date, but they’re still pointing toward March. Selection Sunday is eight weeks away.

“At the end of the day, does it really matter who’s in first place in the middle of January? I don’t think it does,” McCaffery said. “At the same time, they recognize it, they’ve worked for it and they’ve earned it. That’s great. I don’t want to diminish it.”

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.