Hawkeyes return home winless in Big Ten and trying to rediscover swagger

Mark Emmert
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY, Ia. — It’s a curious thing that seems to happen whenever the Iowa men’s basketball team faces a Big Ten Conference opponent.

The verve that has been apparent during a perfect non-conference schedule appears to disappear. The Hawkeyes aren’t as spirited, letting their league foes beat them to the punch time after time.

That has left No. 20 Iowa with an 0-3 record in the Big Ten, contrasted with 11-0 mark against the rest of the country.

Iowa backup point guard Connor McCaffery, driving to the basket Dec. 29 vs. Bryant, has scored only 12 points in his last four games. Ten of those have been on free throws. He knows he has to dig deeper to help his team get its first Big Ten Conference win.

The problem? There are only Big Ten games remaining for the Hawkeyes, and they need to start winning now or risk another March spent watching the NCAA Tournament instead of participating in it.

“I’m not going to say there’s none. I think we need more,” redshirt freshman guard Connor McCaffery said when asked about the lack of fight from the Hawkeyes in road losses at Michigan State and Purdue in particular. “We know that, and I think we’ll bring it.”

The next chance comes at 4:30 p.m. Sunday when No. 23 Nebraska (11-3, 1-2 Big Ten) visits Carver-Hawkeye Arena for a game televised on BTN. The Cornhuskers embarrassed Iowa with a 98-84 home win in the only meeting a year ago.

Iowa earned a spot in the national rankings seven weeks ago after throttling Oregon and Connecticut in Madison Square Garden to win the 2K Classic tournament. In that setting, the Hawkeyes bared their teeth whenever threatened, flexing after made baskets, roaring at every forced turnover, hustling from baseline to baseline and displaying an exuberance that hasn’t always been present.

A month ago, after the Spartans sent the Hawkeyes meekly back to Iowa City with a 90-68 loss, Iowa quickly rallied to beat Iowa State in a game brimming with testosterone. There were two near-fights. The Hawkeyes prevailed 98-84.

On Thursday, Iowa saw a five-game winning streak end with another shoddy Big Ten performance, 86-70 at Purdue. The Hawkeyes led for only 94 seconds early, never by more than a single point. When the Boilermakers seized control, no one on the Iowa sideline seemed intent on seizing it back.

McCaffery, who scored 38 points in the wins over Oregon, Connecticut and Iowa State, was held scoreless for the first time this season. He put up 12 points against the Cyclones and was in the middle of the scuffling. He has scored 12 points in the four games since, 10 of them on free throws.

“I’m just going to try to bring emotion, fight,” McCaffery vowed Friday, acknowledging that he needs to do more with his team down to eight healthy scholarship players. “I’m going to play as hard as I can every time I’m in. I’m going to try to get more loose balls.”

McCaffery said he had a long talk with his father, Fran, on Friday about where he needs to improve. Fran is Iowa’s head coach.

“Connor has to look for his shot a little bit more. He's a guy that can score,” Fran McCaffery told reporters.

That message has been received, Connor said. He leads the team with 43 assists, but is just 1-for-9 from the 3-point arc this season. He knows teams are overplaying him as a driver now. He needs to keep defenses honest while still being a facilitator first.

Starting point guard Jordan Bohannon, who had eight points Thursday on 2-of-5 shooting, has been asked to shoot more as well.

“Both of us need to be a little bit more aggressive. We need to be able to initiate the offense better,” Connor McCaffery said of the point guard tandem. “We need to know when to go and then know when to take it back and run a set.”

It hasn’t helped Iowa that players have been forced into new roles with the absence of starting center Luka Garza. The sophomore has missed three games after spraining his left ankle in practice Dec. 21. Garza called himself “a gametime decision” for Sunday.

Without Garza, senior Nicholas Baer has been moved into the starting lineup. That means Iowa is down one high-energy player off the bench. It also leaves the Hawkeyes with just two post players — starter Tyler Cook and Ryan Kriener in reserve.

Baer said the Hawkeyes leaders — Bohannon, Cook and himself — have spoken individually to players about how unacceptable Thursday’s showing was. The defense, in particular, was atrocious.

“When we look at how our season’s going so far, we understand this is a big turning point for us,” Baer said of a team staring at a possible 0-4 start to Big Ten play in the first week of January. “Playing against real tough competition, understanding that we’re going to have to play at a higher level than we have all season. I think that’s something that we’ve communicated well.”