Leistikow: 4 things we've learned about Iowa basketball after home loss to Illinois

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY — This Iowa men’s basketball season was always going to be a process.

With a revamped collection of top contributors, head coach Fran McCaffery was going to need time to figure out his best combinations.

Most of these players were going to be new to playing important Big Ten Conference minutes.

And there were going to be matchups that just didn’t favor the Hawkeyes in the immediate post-Luka Garza/Joe Wieskamp/Jack Nunge era.

That process continues after Monday night’s 87-83 home loss to border rival Illinois at Carver-Hawkeye Arena. The Illini have now won the last four meetings in the series.

The Hawkeyes (7-2 overall) fell to 0-2 in Big Ten play and now return to nonconference action for four games, starting Thursday at Iowa State.

Here are some things that stuck out Monday that help frame where Iowa sits in this season-long process.

These guys don’t quit.

In three tough games over eight days, the Hawkeyes fought to the finish. They pulled out a thrilling 75-74 win at Virginia last Monday on Joe Toussaint’s winning shot with 8 seconds to go. Against now-No. 1 Purdue, they cut a 19-point second-half deficit to two before falling at Mackey Arena, 77-70. And on Monday against the Illini, they chopped a 15-point deficit with 8:57 to go to three on multiple occasions but Illinois was better in the final minutes.

"All of us have heart and fight until the game’s over, because anything can happen,” sophomore guard Tony Perkins said after scoring a career-high 16 points. “At the same time, once you lose, you (realize) trying to fight from behind gets old.”

Purdue (8-0, 1-0 Big Ten) and Illinois (7-2, 2-0) are expected to be two of the league’s best teams. They are top-15 outfits according to the KenPom.com metrics. For context, none of Iowa’s next 10 games are against current top-25 KenPom teams.

Iowa shouldn’t take a moral victory from this one as it did at Purdue, but the expanded bench contributions are becoming a trend and something for McCaffery to build on.

“We’re able to compete with anyone in the Big Ten, with anyone in the country,” star sophomore Keegan Murray said. “At the end of the day, it’s still a learning process for us. We have new roles to fill and some guys’ first look at the Big Ten.”

Keegan Murray nearly brought Iowa back with his late-game surge, including this picturesque dunk vs. Illinois.

The best five on Monday wasn’t the starting five.

McCaffery was clearly displeased with the starting group, which shot just 5-for-15 in the first half and dug Iowa a big hole to open the second half.

“Our starting group didn’t have it,” McCaffery said. “That was clear and obvious.”

Iowa’s best group Monday was a lineup of Ahron Ulis (11 points, seven assists) at the point: Perkins (who was Iowa’s best player in the first half) at the off guard; Patrick McCaffery (12 points) on the wing; and Keegan and Kris Murray in the paint.

“Tony and Ahron and … Kris, they’ve really given us a lift off the bench, in the Purdue game as well as this game,” Keegan Murray said. “They bring a level of intensity when they come out and they just get after it. They’re a lot of fun to play with. They’re scrappy. They don’t let the guy in front of them score.”

Amen to that, and Fran McCaffery saw it. He left Ulis and Perkins in down the stretch, leaving Toussaint and Jordan Bohannon on the bench.

But don’t forget, Iowa doesn’t win at Virginia without the heroics of Toussaint or Bohannon’s six 3-pointers. Each matchup presents its own set of circumstances. McCaffery might have been too slow to pull his bench late in the first half when it was running out of gas (as Iowa’s nine-point lead turned into a 39-36 halftime deficit). And he might have let the starters go too long to start the second half.

Rebounding will not be this team’s strength.

The game had some staggering statistics, most notably a 52-23 rebounding advantage for Illinois. That’s a stunning 29-board disparity. When Illinois put up a shot, it was more likely to get the ball back — securing 19 offensive rebounds to Iowa’s 14 defensive rebounds. Kofi Cockburn had 17 points and 18 rebounds.

“This rebounding line is completely unacceptable,” McCaffery said. “I’ve been coaching 40 years and never seen anything like it. It’s just absolutely unacceptable. We just have to be better.

“Maybe the ball didn’t bounce our way a couple times, but at some point you’ve got to put a body on somebody.”

It seemed every long rebound went Illinois’ way. Filip Rebraca had eight rebounds; Kris Murray had five. No other Hawkeye had more than two. Iowa got only three rebounds from its guards.

This will obviously be a team-wide priority going forward. Yes, these last two games against giant centers were bad matchups for the Hawkeyes. McCaffery said maybe he should’ve played 6-10 Josh Ogundele (who had two blocks in 1:54 of action) a little more. Agreed.

“At the end of the day, rebounding is hustle and effort. … They wanted the ball more than us,” said Keegan Murray, who had a season-low two rebounds. “Our mindset needs to change in that area. Our guys are up for the challenge.”

With Keegan Murray, this team can go places.

Murray wasn’t himself in the first half, as he scored just two points and attempted three shots. The nation’s leading scorer admitted afterward he was getting a feel for things as he tested out his sprained right ankle that kept him out of the Purdue game.

But Murray nearly brought the Hawkeyes back. In a span of 59 seconds, he scored eight consecutive points — on a 3-pointer, a flying dunk and a 3-point play — to cut Illinois’ lead from 72-61 to 72-69 with 2:27 to go.

Murray finished with 19 points, 17 of them in the second half. 

“At one point you never thought he’d get 19 points,” McCaffery said. “But that just tells you how good he is.”

Murray regained his confidence down the stretch. If you discount the timid first half Monday, Iowa has only played one out of four halves with the real Keegan Murray. That's encouraging once his ankle is no longer an issue. (Iowa has nine days between games after Thursday.)

“This is an Iowa team as I watched film … they’re going to be contending for the (Big Ten) title,” Illinois coach Brad Underwood said.

And now comes the Cy-Hawk game: Iowa at Iowa State, 8 p.m. Thursday. Murray, a Cedar Rapids native, said he’s never been to Hilton Coliseum and can’t wait to get there. The Cyclones are 8-0 and ranked No. 17 by the Associated Press, No. 19 by the coaches.

“That environment’s going to be really fun to play in,” Murray said. “We’re a team that if we lose, we want to get back on the right track.”

Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 27 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.

Iowa guard Payton Sandfort (20) and forward Kris Murray (24) defend Illinois center Kofi Cockburn during Monday's game at Carver-Hawkeye Arena. Cockburn and the Illini finished with a 52-23 rebounding advantage in the game.