Leistikow: Being state champs is nice, but Hawkeyes eye bigger goals
To a young Iowa basketball team led by several Iowans, “state champs” has a nice ring to it.
It’s an unofficial title, of course. But this group has reason to think it’s the start of bigger things to come.
With Saturday’s 69-46 domination of Northern Iowa in the Hy-Vee Classic at Wells Fargo Arena, the Hawkeyes left little doubt that last week’s upset of then-No. 25 Iowa State was no fluke.
“We built off that,” freshman point guard Jordan Bohannon said, “and really came after it tonight.”
Iowa last swept Iowa State and Northern Iowa in 2012, when then-Hawkeyes Mike Gesell and Adam Woodbury were freshmen.
Not a lot of folks would’ve guessed that Fran McCaffery’s seventh team, which went into rebuilding mode after losing four senior starters from last year, would reign supreme over two perennially tough in-state programs.
Of course, that one returning starter is pretty darn good.
Peter Jok, the Big Ten Conference’s leading scorer, pumped in 21 seemingly effortless points on 9-for-15 shooting in the final college appearance in his hometown.
When he hit a step-back 3-pointer to push Iowa’s lead to 27-13 with 4½ minutes left in the first half, this one had the makings of a Hawkeye rout.
And it was.
“When Pete’s hitting shots, we’re tough to beat,” teammate Nicholas Baer said. “… If you play with Pete, you know he’s going to shoot that 3 seconds before he shot it.”
About an hour later, Jok headed to the bench for good, Iowa up 27 points, to a standing ovation.
For Hawkeye fans, players and coaches, it completed a satisfying 10-day stretch.
State champs? You bet. But the Hawkeyes’ postgame tone was that this was an indicator that more impressive wins are possible.
“It just means we can play at a high level against anyone in the country,” Jok said. “It just shows we can defend against a team like Iowa State, a team like UNI. They’re great offensive teams.”
Baer, a bundle of off-the-bench energy who contributed 11 points and 11 rebounds, said bragging rights are overrated.
What is important is this team has figured out that if it plays with defensive intensity, the scoring will come.
“We understood that if we wanted to be successful — all championship-level teams, they play good defense and rebound,” Baer said. “So our last two games, we rebounded well, we defended well. And as a result, we have two wins.”
Nothing a little in-state motivation couldn’t help bring to the surface.
In its last two first halves, Iowa outscored Iowa State and UNI by a combined 78-45.
In those games, the Cyclones and Panthers averaged 55 points on 31.7 percent shooting.
It’s an almost unbelievable turnaround from the Iowa team that gave up 91 points to Seton Hall, 100 toe Memphis, 92 to Notre Dame and 98 to Nebraska-Omaha. All losses.
“We’ve done it two games in a row,” McCaffery said. “I think that was the challenge, against two really good teams. That was a really good team. But the reason they didn’t play well is because we defended the way we did today.”
Before the season, I thought Iowa would be doing well — and maybe giving itself a shot at NCAA Tournament contention — if it could go 2-4 in the six toughest games on its nonconference schedule. By earning unofficial state bragging rights, Iowa got to 2-4.
Of course, I didn’t factor in the Omaha loss. But still …
The Hawkeyes have a chance, with North Dakota on Tuesday and Delaware State on Thursday standing in the way, to close the nonconference season at 8-5 and on a five-game win streak.
They have the knowledge how to make it happen.
Not to mention new-found confidence.
“We know if we’re playing our best game,” freshman forward Cordell Pemsl said, “we can compete with anyone on our schedule.”
Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 22 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.