Improved defense has No. 24 Hawkeyes in position to soar ahead of Penn State trip

Mark Emmert
Hawk Central

The Iowa men’s basketball team had finally wrestled the lead away from Ohio State early in the second half Saturday.

Now, it was time for the defense to go to work. Luka Garza blocked a shot. Tyler Cook grabbed the rebound of a missed Buckeyes’ 3-pointer.

Musa Jallow decided to attack Hawkeye freshman Joe Wieskamp. Wieskamp blocked his jump shot, then snared the defensive rebound when Keyshawn Woods tried another one.

That was three consecutive stops for the Hawkeye defense. They followed that with four in a row minutes later. The tide had turned for good in a 72-62 win. Ohio State scored 0.85 points per possession, a season-low for Iowa’s Big Ten Conference opponents.

Iowa opponents are finding less room to get off shots this season, as Northwestern's Vic Law discovered last week. Here, Hawkeye center Ryan Kriener (left) and forward Joe Wieskamp hem Law in. Iowa has improved 162 spots in adjusted defensive efficiency rankings this year, with a game Wednesday at Penn State up next.

“We’re deeper. We’re smarter. We’re better defensively,” Iowa coach Fran McCaffery said afterward. “And you would expect that. We’re a year older. Sometimes you’ve got to go through it and get your ears pinned back a little bit to figure out exactly why a particular thing is really important.”

No. 24 Iowa (14-3, 3-3 Big Ten) will put its three-game win streak on the line at 6 p.m. Wednesday at Penn State (7-10, 0-5). The game will be televised on BTN.

The Hawkeyes have not fared well in the Bryce-Jordan Center, absorbing a punishing 82-58 loss a year ago.

But there are signs that this is a different group of Iowa athletes. For one, the Hawkeyes rank 80th in the nation in adjusted defensive efficiency, according to That’s not particularly impressive until you consider they were 242nd last season.

“Everyone on this team knows now that to win in this league we’ve got to play defense and we’ve got to get stops,” said Garza, Iowa’s sophomore starting center. “We’re a running team, and we need to get stops to run. That’s when we’re at our best.”

McCaffery, as usual, isn’t afraid to throw a variety of defensive looks at opponents. Iowa will employ man-to-man, a 3-2 zone, a 2-3 zone, a 1-2-2 press. Last year, very little worked as the Hawkeyes seemed to always have at least one player out of position, leading to a leak in the defense.

This year has been much better, with three juniors, plus Garza and Wieskamp in the starting lineup.

“We usually run our press back to the 3-2. Sometimes, we’ll run it back to a man,” said Ryan Kriener, a junior reserve center.

“For us veterans, it’s just like second nature because we change all the time.”

The results are easy to quantify:

  • Iowa forced Ohio State into 21 turnovers with its most effective press of the season.
  • The Hawkeyes have limited their last three opponents to 18-of-65 shooting from the 3-point arc. That’s a 27.7 percent success rate. At this point in Big Ten play a year ago, opponents were making 41.2 percent from 3.
  • A week ago, Northwestern forward Dererk Pardon scored six points in a 73-63 loss to the Hawkeyes. That’s eight below his average. On Saturday, Ohio State’s Kaleb Wesson scored only two points, 15 below his norm.

“We’ve been drilled and drilled on it. It's just become our mentality,” Garza said of Iowa’s attention to the scouting report.

Penn State features 6-foot-8 junior forward Lamar Stevens. He averages 18.6 points and 8 rebounds per game. He is the next challenge for a Hawkeye frontcourt that might be without Cook. Cook leads the Hawkeyes with averages of 17.1 points and 8.3 rebounds. He sprained his left ankle late against Ohio State and was unable to practice Monday. McCaffery said Cook was planning to participate in a portion of Tuesday’s practice to test things. If he can’t start, senior Nicholas Baer would take his place.

Iowa won without Cook at Northwestern. A right knee injury kept him out of that one. It can be done, as long as the commitment to defense continues. There can’t be any weak links.

And that brings things back to Wieskamp, the 6-6 rookie on the wing. His ability to quickly grasp Iowa’s defensive concepts has been both impressive and vital to the recent success. He had two blocks and two steals against the Buckeyes.

“He’s always been able to slide his feet. He’s always taken advantage of his length. And he’s always been a terrific rebounder,” McCaffery said of his young star from Muscatine. “The thing that you don’t know if it will translate is, ‘OK, all of a sudden now you’re guarding a fifth-year senior at the college level. Can you guard that guy?’

“What you’re seeing is, little by little he’s figuring stuff out. Instinctively, he’s doing some things that come with experience and maturation. … We feel like we can put him on a point guard, a wing, a post guy. He’s got that kind of versatility.”

This is just what Iowa needs from everyone in an eight- or nine-player rotation. This is just what the Hawkeyes are getting much more often than last winter.