5 reasons for Hawkeye hoops optimism in Big Ten play

Chad Leistikow

Iowa’s defense needs to be a calling card for success if the Hawkeyes are going to perform well in the Big Ten Conference. Here, Jarrod Uthoff and Mike Gesell jump on a loose ball during Iowa’s win vs. Pepperdine on Nov. 24.

IOWA CITY, Ia. – Sure, the nonconference portion of Iowa's basketball schedule could've gone better.

But considering the big picture of more-important Big Ten Conference play, which begins Tuesday, things could've gone a lot worse.

Iowa's path to 9-4 was inconsistent. They held eight opponents to 56 points or less. There were five 30-point wins.

There were frustrating losses, such as 66-63 to Syracuse where Iowa literally threw away a chance to win with an errant pass from Adam Woodbury.

There were humbling losses, such as 90-75 to Iowa State at home — and it didn't appear to be that close, both on the scoreboard and in talent level — and 71-57 to Texas after jumping out to a 12-point lead.

There were concerning losses, such as 56-44 to Northern Iowa in the Big Four Classic, where Iowa had three — three! — second-half baskets.

But as concerning as those losses are, Iowa didn't lose to the New Jersey Institute of Technology at home like Michigan did. It didn't lose to Incarnate Word at home like Nebraska did. It didn't lose to 2-9 Texas Southern at home like Michigan State did.

"The thing is in the nonconference, there's a tendency to not take every game as serious as league games. And we didn't do that," Iowa senior Aaron White said. "Whatever team came in here, we had the mindset that we've got to take these guys out, and we did that."

Fran McCaffery made it a point to upgrade the nonconference slate in his fifth year as head coach. His analysis after 13 games: regret and optimism.

"I thought we'd have one or two more wins … but I have tremendous respect for the people who beat us," McCaffery said. "They were really good.

"We had a signature road win (60-55 at North Carolina). When you schedule Hampton, very good chance to win their league. When you schedule Pepperdine, very good chance they're going to win their league. When you schedule North Florida, very good chance they're going to win the Atlantic Sun."

Sure, that's a glass half-full approach for an imperfect Iowa team that is struggling to score (ranking 276th in the country entering Saturday with a 40.7 shooting percentage). And in that spirit, here are five reasons for cautious optimism if you're the Hawkeyes entering the 18-game Big Ten gauntlet that begins Tuesday at Ohio State (Noon CT, ESPN2):

The Big Ten is weaker

That's a good thing for a Hawkeye team that hasn't had a winning Big Ten record since 2006-07. Going 10-8 (or better) in league play would be Iowa's safest path to the NCAA Tournament.

While sixth-ranked Wisconsin is expected to be the class of the league, the league's midsection is wide open. Ohio State and surprising Maryland are the only other Big Ten teams ranked in the Associated Press Top 25.

The Big Ten Network's Stephen Bardo has Iowa No. 7 in his weekly power rankings, ahead of (in order) Indiana, Penn State, Nebraska, Michigan, Purdue, Northwestern and Rutgers.

The schedule gets better

Each Big Ten team plays five opponents twice, and the other eight once apiece. Two of Iowa's five "two-plays" are out of the way in the first eight games — Ohio State and Wisconsin. The other two-plays are Minnesota, Nebraska and Northwestern.

Basketball statistics guru Ken Pomeroy projects Iowa will go 7-2 in its final nine games — after starting 2-7. It's a unique schedule, and Iowa is battle-tested for the front-end challenges it will face. Don't forget, Iowa's marquee win last season came at the site of this season's Big Ten opener — Value City Arena in Columbus, Ohio.

If the Hawkeyes can salavage a 3-5 start out of the gate (at Ohio State, Nebraska, Michigan State, at Minnesota, Ohio State, at Wisconsin, at Purdue, Wisconsin), the schedule-makers have them well-positioned for 10-8.

A changed team

Forget what you know about Iowa's famous slide a year ago — seven losses in the Hawkeyes' final eight games.

This Hawkeye team has a new identity: a longer, more aggressive defense.

"We kind of put our heads together and (said), what we did last year isn't going to cut it. We can't rely on our offense," White said. "We take guys out on the defensive end."

The stats back up White's contention: Iowa is ranked 23rd nationally in field-goal percentage defense, at 36.9 percent.

"We've got guys that can guard multiple positions," White said.

Free throws

If improved defense is phase one of improving over last year's 9-9 Big Ten mark, then getting to the free-throw line is phase two.

Iowa's shooting struggles can be masked by the aggressive tactic of drawing fouls. Nobody is better at that than White, who is 81-for-92 (88 percent) from the free-throw line this year. The Hawkeyes are fourth in the nation in free-throw percentage at 77.5 percent.

The Hawkeyes finished 26-of-28 from the line in their nonconference finale, an 80-70 win over a North Florida team that beat Purdue. And anyone who has watched Big Ten basketball in the last decade knows those games can turn into rugged foul-shooting contests.

"That's got to be our mindset from now on," Iowa junior Jarrod Uthoff said. "Be more aggressive, play looser, not as tentative, just attack the other team."

Lessons learned

You've heard of good losses. While they were being humbled, the Hawkeyes took a big-picture approach to their four negative outcomes.

"It's a long season," senior guard Josh Oglesby said. "A lot of learning was taking place (in the losses)."

The biggest lesson: When shots aren't falling, don't let it affect your defense.

Iowa failed miserably in that area against Texas and Iowa State. But those were two excellent teams. And this is a reflective Iowa group that insists this is a new team from a year ago — a defense-first team.

"Minus the Iowa State game," White said, "I was pretty happy with our defense.

"If we hang our hat on that throughout the Big Ten, it should be a fun year. I think it should be good for us."