One sequence in Iowa's win over Pitt showed how far the team has come from last year

Mark Emmert
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY, Ia. — The Iowa men’s basketball team hadn’t been in a rough-and-tumble game like this all season.

Pitt came into Carver-Hawkeye Arena on Tuesday looking to take down a No. 15-ranked team by beating the Hawkeyes to every punch.

“We knew it was going to be a battle, it was going to be a macho game coming in,” Iowa guard Jordan Bohannon said afterward.

Iowa guard Jordan Bohannon (3) reacts after getting called for a charge against Pittsburgh's Trey McGowens (2) during a NCAA men's basketball game on Tuesday, Nov. 27, 2018, at Carver-Hawkeye Arena in Iowa City.

The Panthers punished the Hawkeyes inside throughout the first half and trotted to their locker room with a 46-40 lead.

Last season, an Iowa opponent that did that would have been counting the Hawkeyes’ lunch money already.

This is not last season.

Iowa forward Tyler Cook felt one sequence late in Iowa’s 69-68 win showed how much has changed from that drowsy winter of 2017-18, when the Hawkeyes finished 14-19.

Pitt (6-1) made a 3-pointer with 7:52 left to take a 62-59 lead.

“I was thinking, ‘Oh, man, last year we would have folded. We’d be down six or seven right now,’” Cook said.

Instead, Pitt’s next three possessions resulted in three missed shots and two turnovers. Iowa grabbed the lead back and held on. The Panthers made just two of their final 10 shots.

“If we get hit, we’re hitting right back. We’re not giving up,” said Cook, who did get clobbered by an elbow in the second half and laid under his basket for an entire possession before heading to the locker room briefly to shake off the cobwebs.

Cook returned. The Hawkeyes (6-0) prevailed after taking all of Pitt’s best shots.

“They’re going to try to match our physicality. They’re going to try to up it even. So we knew that we were going to have to increase that level even more,” Bohannon said of surviving Pitt. “Because you saw a couple of times when it got pretty scrappy.”

Iowa senior forward Nicholas Baer, who scored 14 of his season-high 16 points after halftime, put the victory in perspective.

“I think it shows our growth,” Baer said. “I think there’s times last year after having the first half we had, giving up 46 points, we might have given up 90. But … we were able to buckle down defensively.”

Buckle down. Not buckle under. Big difference.

McCaffery's halftime message gets through

Iowa coach Fran McCaffery said he had a “very direct” message for his team at halftime.

His players were happy to expand on that.

“A lot of words I probably can’t say,” Bohannon said with a knowing smile. “He just motivated us. When you have a half like that, when you’re a coach, you need to get on your guys. … We weren’t playing as we should have.”

Freshman Joe Wieskamp was getting his first taste of a McCaffery-esque motivation. Iowa hadn’t trailed at intermission all season, with an average lead of 13 points.

“He’s an intense coach. He wants the best for us and sometimes he has to get on us and get his message across,” Wieskamp said. “We can’t give up 46 points in a half.”

What changed? Baer said it started with Iowa’s ball-screen defense, finding ways to keep the Panthers from roaming the paint.

Iowa forward Tyler Cook (left) holds his head after taking a fall during a NCAA men's basketball game on Tuesday, Nov. 27, 2018, at Carver-Hawkeye Arena in Iowa City.

“We understood that they have some guards that want to get downhill,” Baer said. “We knew if we made them take contested jumpers over a long stretch of time with them, we’d have a higher chance of getting stops. Credit to our guards able to get through on those ball screens and our bigs being able to wall them off.”

Pitt made 61.3 percent of its shots in the first half, 29.2 percent in the second.

McCaffery’s profane message had a profound effect.

Get used to seeing 'small' lineup

Pitt started four guards and was aggressively double-teaming Iowa post players Cook and Luka Garza on every touch. So McCaffery made an adjustment early on to counter with a smaller lineup. The Hawkeyes rarely played two post players together.

That meant frequent three-guard lineups with either 6-foot-6 Wieskamp or 6-7 Baer in the power forward spot.

“I think it helped us at the defensive end,” McCaffery said. “I thought we had a lot of good possessions, and we forced them into a lot more mistakes than we made.”

The Panthers turned the ball over 12 times in the second half. Bohannon had a career-high six steals.

“They were playing four to five guards. Playing almost like Golden State was, just almost switching everything, and driving everything and having shooters all over,” Bohannon said. “We kind of had to … adjust because we knew it was going to be a different game than what we had been playing and they took us off the dribble quite a bit in the first half.”

Expect to see McCaffery do this more often. Teams are increasingly “downshifting,” in McCaffery’s terms, to smaller, quicker lineups and he now feels he has the athletes to do the same.

McCaffery said he would prefer not to use Wieskamp as a power forward. But he feels his rookie can handle that role.

“I see myself as a versatile player, play ‘1’ through the ‘4,’ ” Wieskamp said. “It’s been a little tough trying to figure out all the plays. I know I’ve made some mistakes but my teammates are always there to help me out.”

Wieskamp finished with 18 points and 11 rebounds Tuesday. It was also Baer’s best game of the season. This was not just a one-game experiment.