Leistikow: This version of Joe Wieskamp can help carry Iowa Hawkeyes to special places
IOWA CITY, Ia. — The best news to come out of No. 16 Iowa’s workmanlike 79-66 victory against Rutgers on Wednesday night was valuable guard CJ Fredrick reporting that he’s turning the corner on his lower-leg injury.
“I mean this in all sincerity, I’m getting a lot better,” Fredrick said after logging 17 minutes, the most he’s played since Jan. 17. “I feel like I can start being myself again.”
The second-best thing that emerged was Joe Wieskamp starting and finishing strong. The result was a satisfying and needed victory for the Hawkeyes, who had lost four of their last five games.
In those four losses, Wieskamp scored a robust 70 points. But the majority of his production was coming in the first halves — 46 points, including 10-for-15 shooting on 3-pointers — while having a tendency to disappear down the stretch. On Sunday, after shooting 6-for-9 for 15 points in the first half at Indiana, he took three shots after halftime and scored just three more points.
Wieskamp's determination to not let that happen again dates to the offseason, when he worked on the mental side of his game. He knew as a college junior in the Big Ten, he needed to be tougher. On Wednesday, that aggression — and hot shooting hand — made him the best player on the floor.
Wieskamp finished with a season-high 26 points — 16 in the first half, while the rest of his teammates shot an atrocious 4-for-23 combined, and 10 in the second. He grabbed 10 rebounds against a rangy Rutgers team. He buried five 3-pointers on seven attempts. He played 35 minutes without a turnover.
“One of those complete performances,” Fran McCaffery said of the top-rated recruit of his 11-year Hawkeye era. “I played him in different spots. He made shots when we needed them. He rebounded the ball. He defended. No mistakes. He was really special (Tuesday).”
Wieskamp needed this kind of game, for the Hawkeyes’ win column and for himself. Eight times during the first 59 games of his Iowa career, Wieskamp topped 20 points in a game.
But, oddly, he hadn’t crossed the 20 mark in any of his previous 26 games. Part of that is a deference to all-American Luka Garza. But part of that was a late-season funk as a sophomore. He was affected by teams playing aggressive defense against him.
In Iowa's final six games a year ago, Wieskamp averaged 8.2 points (barely half his usual clip) while shooting 3-for-21 from 3-point range.
This year, he’s often looked like the future NBA player that many expect him to be.
“Last year was tough for me for stretches, because they were so physical with me at times and I didn’t know how to react to it,” Wieskamp said. “I think just going through that has allowed me to learn so much.”
On Wednesday, Wieskamp’s maturity was evident. Rutgers was physical with him, just like Indiana and Michigan State had been in recent weeks. This time, he didn’t back down.
“Guys were up in my space. They were fouling me all game,” Wieskamp said. “I thought I did a good job fighting through that and playing through the physicality.”
One particular sequence appropriately summed up Wieskamp’s confident night and the struggle it was at times for either team to develop crisp offense.
After Rutgers pulled to within 58-50 at the under-8:00 timeout of the second half, McCaffery dialed up some action to get Wieskamp a shot
"Obviously, the reason we did that was because he had it going," McCaffery said, "and we wanted to ride him."
Jordan Bohannon was well-guarded near the top of the key by Geo Baker and got away an ugly-looking bounce pass to Wieskamp on the left wing with 8 seconds left on the shot clock.
Wieskamp collected the ball near the Mediacom logo in front of the scorer’s table. With Ron Harper Jr. guarding him, Wieskamp took one jab step to his right, recollected himself without dribbling, and rose up for a 27-footer.
Bang; 11-point Iowa lead.
It was that kind of night for Wieskamp, who would hit two free throws on Iowa’s next possession then drop in another 3 from the left side — one of his many favorite spots —for a 66-54 lead with 5:49 to play. Harper was in his face on that one, too, but it didn’t matter.
The Hawkeyes (14-6 overall, 8-5 Big Ten) were comfortably in charge the rest of the way. Wieskamp was just too good for the Scarlet Knights (11-7, 7-7).
“I wanted to come out here and play a complete game,” Wieskamp said. “A complete 40 minutes."
Wieskamp has been on a shooting tear of late. Since Jan. 10, he’s a staggering 26-for-44 from 3-point range (59.1%). That kind of efficiency is exactly why he and Hawkeye backers wanted to see him have this kind of game.
Without one of the best games of Wieskamp's career, Iowa probably doesn’t win this one. Garza uncharacteristically missed 11 of his first 14 shot attempts.
“He’s just been really, really hooping. I’m proud of him. We’re going to go to him,” said Garza, who would finish with 22 points and 10 rebounds on 8-for-20 shooting. “In the first half when I was missing some shots I normally make, he really picked us up. The second half, I was able to get going.”
Now, maybe, comes an important test for Wieskamp and the Hawkeyes — a Saturday trip to nemesis Michigan State.
The Spartans are beatable this year, and Iowa did beat them once, Feb. 2 at Carver-Hawkeye.
Tom Izzo has historically known how to handle Wieskamp, with that physical Michigan State style. In four games vs. the Spartans, Wieskamp is 7-for-26 from the floor (26.9%) with scoring totals of 8, 5, 4 and 5 points.
Let’s see if Wieskamp can build off Wednesday’s winning performance with a Saturday encore inside the Breslin Center. If he can, that’s a great sign for the rest of Iowa’s season.
The Hawkeyes can ride Wieskamp, not just Garza, a long way if he keeps playing like this … which we know he can.
“Coach is running sets for me, and guys are finding me in position to knock down shots and make big plays,” said Wieskamp, whose scoring average jumped to 15.2 points and his 3-point accuracy rose to 47.4%. “I’ve just got to finish the season strong and keep shooting with confidence.”
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.