Hawkeyes need to find answer for Cyclones' Monte Morris

Mark Emmert

IOWA CITY, Ia. — The Iowa men’s basketball team has already seen its share of top-flight point guards this season, and the results have not been good.

The best one yet invades Carver-Hawkeye Arena at 7 p.m. Thursday, bringing No. 25 Iowa State with him for a game that will be televised on ESPN2.

Monte Morris is a preseason all-American averaging 14.8 points and 6.2 assists to lead the Cyclones (6-2). The 6-foot-3 Michigan native is also a disruptive defender.

Want proof? The same Tra-Deon Hollins who recorded 11 assists Saturday as Nebraska-Omaha upset Iowa was limited to a single assist two nights later when the Mavericks fell hard in Ames.

Iowa's Jordan Bohannon drives to the hoop during the Hawkeyes' game against Stetson at Carver-Hawkeye Arena on Monday, Dec. 5, 2016.

“He can shoot, he can drive, he can hit floaters, he can make layups going either direction,” Iowa coach Fran McCaffery said of Morris on Wednesday. “But it’s his ability to make the right decision that separates him. That’s the challenge for any team that will play him. You’ve got to put pressure on him and defend him as hard as you can.”

Iowa (4-5) has struggled to defend all season, particularly against good teams. The Hawkeyes went on a four-game losing streak while facing the following point guards: Virginia senior London Perrantes, Memphis sophomore Jeremiah Martin, Notre Dame junior Matt Farrell and Hollins, also a senior. That quartet averaged 13.5 points and 6.8 assists in those contests. Three of the teams scored 90 or more points.

The Hawkeyes are 7.5-point underdogs, and that recent history is a big reason why.

“I just see a special player playing the way he’s capable of playing,” McCaffery said of Morris. “He’s probably the closest thing to the total package that I’ve seen” this season.

Iowa’s defense on Morris, who ranks 11th nationally in assist-to-turnover ratio at 4.2, will start with freshman Jordan Bohannon.

Inserted into the starting lineup Nov. 29 at Notre Dame, the 6-foot Bohannon has averaged 31 minutes in three games, with 45 points, 18 assists and seven turnovers. Christian Williams, a 6-5 sophomore, still spells him at times, but his minutes are diminishing as Bohannon takes the reins as the Hawkeyes’ clear lead guard.

Bohannon’s conditioning has been impressive, as has his never-back-down attitude. He’s certainly not afraid to shoot the ball, having launched it 41 times in his three starts.

“That’s my high school mentality. I was a shoot-first point guard (at Linn-Mar) and did a lot of stuff off the dribble. I think that helps out the team knowing there’s another shooter on the floor, and I’m able to open up the floor a lot better,” Bohannon said.

Defense has been a different challenge, and figures to be again Thursday. Iowa State is averaging 85 points a game and starts five seniors, four of whom average double digits.

“We’ve been scoring a lot. Right now, our mentality is just outscore the opposition, and that’s what it shouldn’t be,” Bohannon said. “It should be getting stops on defense, working hard on every possession and really guarding your yard.”

The fact that Thursday’s game is in Iowa’s yard should help a team expected to start three rookies. McCaffery said Wednesday that sophomore forward Ahmad Wagner, who injured a knee in the second half of Monday’s victory over Stetson, is expected to be able to play.

There were about 2,000 tickets available for the game as of Wednesday morning. The Cyclones will certainly bring a strong contingent of fans.

Spirits will run high once the ball tips off as well. The rivalry game comes with a heavy dose of trash-talking.

“I think that happens in every game,” McCaffery cautioned. “Whatever works for you. Some guys don’t like it. Some guys love it. Some guys respond to it because they don’t feel like hearing it anymore.”

The Hawkeyes will have three homegrown players experiencing the rivalry for the first time in Bohannon and forwards Cordell Pemsl of Dubuque and Ryan Kriener of Spirit Lake. How they handle the emotion of the game — if it overwhelms them or if they feed off of it — will be a key to watch.

But it’s Iowa’s lone senior, shooting guard Peter Jok of West Des Moines Valley, that is quietly yearning to win this game the most. He is 0-for-3 against Iowa State in his career.

“We’ve got to take them down,” Wagner said. “Pete mentioned that he hasn’t got a chance to beat them yet, so we’ve got to send Pete off right.”