CLOSE

Iowa forward Nicholas Baer explains what's better about the defense this season Mark Emmert, memmert@gannett.com

LINKEDINCOMMENTMORE

IOWA CITY, Ia. — The Iowa men’s basketball team has three home wins practically gift-wrapped for it this holiday season.

That stretch starts Tuesday, with an 8 p.m. game against Western Carolina, which brings a 3-9 record and little expectation of winning into Carver-Hawkeye Arena. Games against Savannah State (Saturday) and Bryant (Dec. 29) follow.

Then it’s back to the Big Ten Conference grind for the No. 21 Hawkeyes (8-2), an 18-game gauntlet that will establish how high the ceiling is for a team that has been talking about March all season long.

“It kind of gives us a chip on our shoulder,” Iowa center Luka Garza said of his team’s 0-2 start in the conference. “We need to pick up the slack these next 18 games in Big Ten play. So we’re all focused on that.

“It sucks. We had a really hard draw (losses to Wisconsin and at Michigan State). Wisconsin’s one we all look at as a game we should have locked that down. So that’s a tough one to lose, but we’re focused on the next thing. We need to make sure these next 18 games, we win and we focus on the scouting report like we did (Saturday) and we execute.”

The Hawkeyes responded to their first two setbacks by blitzing in-state rivals Iowa State (98-84 on Dec. 6) and Northern Iowa (77-54 on Saturday). Iowa led for 72 of the 80 minutes in those games, the same pattern it used to beat Oregon and Connecticut in the 2K Classic in New York City. When the Hawkeyes get a lead, they rarely relinquish it, a sign of maturity after last winter’s 14-19 finish.

“We’re in control," Iowa forward Nicholas Baer said. "I feel like we’re taking the lead early in the game and we’re able to maintain that and make that lead grow. I think that comes down to defense.

“We’re focusing each possession on what we need to do to get stops.”

Iowa should have little problem building leads in its next three games. That would leave the Hawkeyes with an 11-2 record heading into the new year. Beyond winning, the goal is to develop good habits, the kind that will hold up as the competition gets fiercer.

“Consistent play at both ends of the floor,” Iowa coach Fran McCaffery said when asked what he wants to see these next two weeks. “Ball movement. Unselfishness. A mixture of jumpshots and post feeds. Good transition defense. Good ball-screen defense. Good defense against their actions. And five guys working as one. Anything short of that in our league is problematic.”

Baer said Iowa has been devoting much time in practice the past two weeks trying to perfect its motion offense. The Hawkeyes made 55.7 percent of their shots against the Cyclones and Panthers as a result.

“Being more on-time with some of our screeners. That’s something we can continue to work on and just continue to be receivers for our guards,” Baer said of the ongoing fine-tuning.

“It felt like every shot we took (Saturday) was a good shot.”

That’s not to say that the Hawkeyes are looking past their next three opponents.

“We need to keep that same mental focus that we had in New York. Every team’s going to give us their best shot. We see a lot of teams going on the road and beating high majors. Like (Saturday), Syracuse goes down (to Old Dominion),” Garza said.

“It’s happened a lot. So we’re just going to make sure that’s not us. We’re going to lock down those wins and make sure we come out and treat them like it’s Duke or it’s Gonzaga.”

Or Purdue, which is Iowa’s next true challenge on Jan. 3.

LINKEDINCOMMENTMORE