Iowa men's basketball team enters defining stretch of games, starting with Oregon

Mark Emmert
Hawk Central

NEW YORK, N.Y. — The Iowa men’s basketball team dispatched its first two opponents as expected.

Now comes a make-or-break stretch in the schedule, beginning on the sport’s grandest stage.

The Hawkeyes will face six power-conference teams in the next seven games, meaning we will know in three weeks whether this team has what it takes to be a contender for an NCAA Tournament berth one season after an unsatisfactory 14-19 finish.

“These next two games are resume-builders. It’s as simple as that,” Iowa point guard Jordan Bohannon said.

Iowa guard Jordan Bohannon, right, wants to make a larger imprint as a leader for younger players like Connor McCaffery this season. The pair will get a big early test Thursday and Friday at the 2K Classic tournament in New York's storied Madison Square Garden.

First up in the 2K Classic tournament is a meeting with No. 13 Oregon at 8:15 p.m. Thursday in Madison Square Garden. Connecticut faces No. 15 Syracuse in the opening game. The losers of those games will play at 3:30 p.m. Friday; the winners to follow. All games are on ESPN2.

This is a bright-lights moment for an Iowa team that defeated Missouri-Kansas City and Green Bay in home games that were sparsely attended and weren’t even televised.

The venue brings its own magic, and Iowa knows that well. The Hawkeyes were here eight months ago for the Big Ten tournament.

“I wish you could feel how excited I am to go back there. That’s one of the most special places I’ve ever been in my life,” Bohannon said. “Warming up there, just showing up and you step on the court the first time, that was just surreal for me and everyone on the team.”

It will be even more special if Iowa comes away with a pair of wins.

Iowa coach Fran McCaffery said he entered his team in the 2K Classic for a second time (the Hawkeyes were also in the 2014 version) primarily to get an early gauge of his team knowing that league play was looming in late November. After Iowa returns from New York, it will host Pittsburgh, Wisconsin and Iowa State, with a road game against Michigan State, in a 10-day stretch.

It starts with an Oregon team that features one of the most unique talents in college basketball. Center Bol Bol is a 7-foot-2 freshman averaging 17.5 points, 12.5 rebounds and 3.5 blocked shots in the first two games of his college career. He is the son of former NBA player Manute Bol.

And he’s no stranger to Iowa forward Tyler Cook, who has competed against Bol in the past, most recently at a Nike skills camp in California this summer.

“Outside of the fact that he’s 7-2, he’s very skilled, too,” Cook said. “He’s a player, so it will be fun.”

Cook leads Iowa with 14.5 points and seven rebounds per game. He has gotten to the free-throw line 18 times. He’ll be trying to get Bol in foul trouble without drawing whistles himself. He’s Iowa’s best option to neutralize the Ducks’ budding star. But it will be a team effort.

“Normally I’d say, ‘OK, you’ve got to put the biggest guy on him because he’s that tall.' But he’s versatile. He’s an athlete,” McCaffery said of defending Bol. “I don’t think we’ll have any one particular person on him. You’re going to have to compete. He’s a competitor. He’s got real good feel for how to play and he can put points up in bunches, and that’s what you a have to avoid.”

Oregon also has a terrific point guard in junior Payton Pritchard (16 points, 5.5 assists per game). That will be Bohannon’s challenge.

So will helping his Hawkeye teammates avoid prolonged stretches of negativity. That’s one of Bohannon’s goals this season after his team endured too many of them last year, starting with a November tournament in the Cayman Islands that included two sloppy losses in three games. That season never got back on track. This one will start to be defined by what takes place before Thanksgiving, as well.

“I’ve been trying to stay positive,” Bohannon said. “Trying to stay optimistic on the court. Trying to keep everyone together as much as possible this year. If someone gets down, I’m going to hold myself accountable to make sure they’re OK the next possession.”