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Leistikow's Iowa basketball thoughts: A prime NCAA seeding opportunity, Garza vs. Dickinson, free-throw shooting

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

For the first time since the 2012-13 season, Fran McCaffery’s Iowa Hawkeyes will face multiple top-10 opponents in the same week.

But unlike then, McCaffery is directing a top-10 team of his own.

The drama is huge, and the stakes are high as Iowa (No. 9 Associated Press, No. 12 coaches’ poll) gears up to visit No. 3 Michigan at 6 p.m. Thursday and No. 5 Ohio State at 3 p.m. Sunday.

Iowa (17-6 overall, 11-5 Big Ten) has more in mind than trying to maintain its grip on a top-four spot in the nation’s best conference, the Big Ten. The Hawkeyes (No. 4 in KenPom.com, No. 5 in NCAA NET) also are trying to strengthen their case for a top-three NCAA Tournament seed. As of Tuesday, ESPN’s Joe Lunardi projected Iowa on the 2 line, with Michigan (16-1, 11-1) and Ohio State (18-5, 12-5) as No. 1s.

The Hawkeyes lost at home to Ohio State, 89-85, on Feb. 4 in a game it led by 11 in the second half and didn’t have the services of excellent shooting guard CJ Fredrick. They split with Michigan a year ago and, as you would expect, believe they can beat both teams.

“We're kind of fighting with them for a spot that we believe that we still deserve, a 1 seed,” senior guard Jordan Bohannon said. “… From my perspective, it’s going to be a lock for us to get a 1 seed if we win both of these games. That’s the kind of opportunity we have ahead of us, but we have to take care of Michigan first and do what we can to try to stop that team.”

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Bohannon and his basketball-savvy teammates know that this is their chance to test themselves against some of the nation’s best in back-to-back games. It doesn’t take much imagination — say, in a Sweet 16 or Final Four — to come up with another scenario in which the Hawkeyes will try to win two high-profile games in a matter of days.

Michigan and Ohio State put on a show for the nation Sunday on CBS, as the Wolverines came away with an entertaining 92-87 win in Columbus. This is Iowa’s chance to show it, too, belongs in the top-seed conversation. The Hawkeyes are 16-2 when Fredrick plays a full game.

“These are two opportunities for us to get a lot better,” all-American center Luka Garza said. “… It’s really going to test our defense. I think that’s the biggest thing for us, to continue the consistency on the defensive end.”

The players would never say this, but going .500 this week would be a victory. That would be a significant step in helping to secure a top-three NCAA Tournament seed. Iowa’s seeds in McCaffery’s previous four NCAA Tournament trips are two 7s, a 10 and an 11. Getting a 2 or 3 (or better) would help Iowa avoid confronting a top seed as long as possible come March.

Hunter Dickinson had 22 points for Michigan in Sunday's 92-87 win in Columbus. The 7-foor-1 freshman is one of the nation's most efficient players.

Get ready for the Garza vs. Hunter Dickinson matchup to be a repetitive focal point of ESPN’s broadcast.

Announcers Dan Shulman and (for the second straight Thursday) Dick Vitale are presented a ready-made story line, a heavyweight battle between Iowa’s 6-foot-11 Garza and Michigan’s 7-1 Dickinson.

Garza is the accomplished senior and nation’s leading scorer (at 24.7 points per game) who is heavily favored to win the Wooden Award. Dickinson is the freshman — the future Garza — who leads the Wolverines in scoring at 15.0 per game.

The fact that both hail from the Washington, D.C., area, adds to the drama. Garza, 22, has known and competed against Dickinson, 20, since they were young. Dickinson hails from Alexandria, Virginia, and starred for the legendary DeMatha Catholic High School program across the Potomac River in Maryland.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, Garza stayed with his parents in nearby Arlington, Virginia. He would either work out by himself, with former Maryland star Jalen Smith ... or Dickinson.

Dickinson is a left-handed big man with a sweet hook shot and smooth all-around game. He’s been named Big Ten freshman of the week seven times.

"Great in the post, has nice touch, has a nice jumper," Garza said. "I’m similar in that way.”

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Further, Shulman and Vitale will almost certainly reference the last time Garza played in the Crisler Center. He posted a career-high 44 points on Dec. 6, 2019 (a 103-91 Michigan win), which ranks as the No. 3 single-game output in Iowa history. Garza scored 33 in Michigan’s return trip to Iowa City, a 90-83 Hawkeye win. Against a familiar foe like Dickinson, repeating those numbers could be a challenge.

“We’ve played against each other a lot. He definitely knows my game," Garza said. "But they’re going to prepare for me like every team and watch film, so he’s also going to have that (advantage) as well. And I’ll have the same thing. We both know each others’ games pretty well."

Luka Garza (55) is fouled by Michigan forward Isaiah Livers in last season's Iowa game in the Crisler Center. Garza scored a career-high 44 points that night.

Iowa’s defense has been undeniably different in the past five games. It’ll be tested Thursday.

The Hawkeyes have held their last five opponents to 68 or fewer points, and that’s significant on multiple levels.

First, they’ve risen nearly 50 spots in KenPom’s adjusted defensive efficiency ratings during those five games, from the low 120s to No. 75 as of Tuesday. The 67-65 loss at Indiana started this improved defensive run. During these five games, opponents are shooting 36.0% overall (30.2% on 3-pointers, 40.4% on 2-pointers). You’ll take that every day and twice on Sundays if you’re Iowa.

Second, this is the first time Iowa has held five straight Big Ten opponents below 70 points since a run of seven games in the 2014-15 season. That Hawkeye team was more skilled defensively (No. 34 in KenPom) than this one and actually held 10 of its final 11 Big Ten opponents to 67 or fewer. So, this is rare defensive turf for the Hawkeyes.

The improvement can be traced to McCaffery’s admission that he was using zone defense too often. A more concentrated effort on tough man-to-man has helped, as has the return of Fredrick in three of Iowa’s last four games and better defensive rebounding — which triggers the Hawkeyes' potent transition game.

"For the most part, the guys that we’re guarding are usually quicker and more athletic than us," Iowa junior Joe Wieskamp said. "It’s really a mindset that we have to have, to defend the guy in front of you and help the guy if you get beat.”

But stretching Iowa’s below-70 streak to six will be tough. Michigan is No. 7 nationally in adjusted offense, and we know the Hawkeyes are going to play a fast pace Thursday. Still, how they fare defensively will be telling about whether this five-game stretch is a true turnaround defensively or just an example that they haven’t been playing elite offenses lately.

"It’s going to come down to locking in defensively, because they have so many threats that can score the ball and guys that can drive the lane and pass," Wieskamp said. "They’re definitely a complete team, and it’s going to take a full 40 minutes for us to get the job done."

Should there be concern about Iowa’s free-throw shooting?

Short answer from me: Yes.

I wrote in a preseason column that this Hawkeye team could approach 80% from the foul line and be the program’s best-ever foul-shooting team. That’s not happening.

Iowa is at a pedestrian 71.3% for the season, ninth in the Big Ten and 163rd nationally.

Connor McCaffery is shooting 56% from the line (down from 78.1% last year). Joe Wieskamp is at 69.3% (down from his Big Ten-leading 85.6% last year). Garza is at 70.1% (well below his 80.4% clip as a sophomore). Those percentages don’t factor in lost free throws as a result of missing the front end of one-and-one opportunities, of which Iowa has had too many to count this season.

“It’s not something I’m proud of right now," Wieskamp said of his free-throw dip. "Sometimes, it’s more of a mental thing than anything. … I’ve just got to shut my mind off when I’m up there."

McCaffery didn't seem as worried; he thinks the numbers will increase if his guys get to the line more often.

"I think the more they shoot," McCaffery said, "the better they'll get."

Here's a "yikes" stat: Iowa has shot below 70% from the foul line in six of its last eight games.

An 11-for-17 night was costly in that home loss to Ohio State. Iowa narrowly overcame 12-for-22 shooting from the stripe (54.5%) in Sunday's 74-68 win against Penn State.

Those recent numbers are something to remember, if this week's games are decided by a few free throws.

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.