Hawkeyes must shore up interior defense

Mark Emmert

IOWA CITY, Ia. — There are six true measuring-stick games on the Iowa men’s basketball non-conference schedule. Six valuable chances to find out what the Hawkeyes are made of before Big Ten Conference play begins Dec. 28 at Purdue.

The first such test has come and gone, with Seton Hall storming into Carver-Hawkeye Arena and handing the hosts a 91-83 setback on Thursday. That left Iowa with a 2-1 record and more questions than answers, particularly on defense.

Now comes another pushover before Iowa will get pushed again. Texas-Rio Grande Valley visits Carver-Hawkeye at 4:30 p.m. Sunday, sporting an 0-3 record under first-year coach Lew Hill. It’s an opportunity for the Hawkeyes to again play their full roster and to rack up points as they did in opening victories over Kennesaw State and Savannah State.

Iowa's Tyler Cook celebrates a dunk during the Hawkeyes' game against Seton Hall at Carver-Hawkeye Arena on Thursday, Nov. 17, 2016.

It’s also an opportunity to display some defensive mastery, something that has eluded the Hawkeyes thus far. With upcoming games against Virginia, Notre Dame and in-state rivals Iowa State and Northern Iowa, the road doesn’t get easier. Meaning Iowa must get tougher.

“We didn’t help each other. Our team defense was really bad,” Iowa guard Peter Jok said after his team allowed Seton Hall to score 1.097 points per possession.

That brought Iowa’s three game numbers in that category to .967 to rank 154th in the nation.

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The Pirates were able to drive to the basket at will, scoring 50 points in the paint and requiring only 11 assists to get them. Frequently, no passes were needed because no Hawkeye stepped in to force one. Once a Seton Hall player got to the rim, there was little contesting of shots.

“I take part of the blame for that,” freshman forward Tyler Cook said.

“I’ve got to be ready sooner, to be able to go protect the rim, realizing I’m the primary rim protector along with Ahmad (Wagner). It’s something I’ve got to get better at, and the guards got to keep guys in front of them, too. It’s a collective effort.”

Cook was a brute on offense, scoring 24 points in by far his best showing of the season. That aggression was not witnessed defensively, where he picked up just one foul in 32 minutes, with no blocked shots.

Wagner, a sophomore, scored one point in 20 minutes. Each player grabbed just a single defensive rebound.

So Iowa’s improvement must start there, and it should start Sunday against a UTRGV team whose biggest starter is Mike Hoffman at 6-foot-9, 215 pounds. The Vaqueros are shooting only 41.7 percent from the field and are being outrebounded by nine per game.

The Hawkeyes can counter with Cook (6-9, 253 pounds), Wagner (6-7, 235), Cordell Pemsl (6-8, 249) and even Dom Uhl, who often plays on the wing but is 6-9, 217 pounds.

It’s game such as Sunday’s — with lesser opponents Omaha, Stetson, North Dakota and Delaware State to come — that give the Hawkeyes a chance to flex their muscles inside. They must then make that carry over to games against bigger and stronger opponents. Or it’s going to be a long season.

Iowa coach Fran McCaffery, who shortened his bench and essentially used seven players in the second half against Seton Hall, seemed particularly frustrated that it wasn’t just his freshmen who struggled to get stops. The Pirates shot 65.5 percent from the field after intermission with only Cook and point guard Jordan Bohannon as rookies who saw extended action.

“Everyone wants to talk about youth,” said McCaffery, who has 10 first- and second-year players on his roster. “That was a pretty experienced team out there that did not defend. We have to get better.”