Where Hawkeyes stand at halfway point
PISCATAWAY, N.J. — Iowa has reached the halfway point of its Big Ten Conference season still searching for consistency. Particularly on defense. Particularly on the road.
The Hawkeyes (12-10, 4-5 Big Ten) play three of their next four games away from home, starting with Tuesday’s 6 p.m. tipoff at last-place Rutgers (Big Ten Network). They also do so likely without senior star Peter Jok, who is being held out of play to let an ailing back mend. Jok’s streak of 52 consecutive games played was snapped Saturday and his young teammates responded with a superb offensive rhythm and an 85-72 home win over Ohio State.
Iowa coach Fran McCaffery told reporters in a Monday teleconference that Jok did not practice Sunday either and that he was unsure whether the Big Ten’s leading scorer would take the court at the RAC on Tuesday.
The Hawkeyes, with an RPI of 108, are almost certainly playing for a bid to the NIT, not the NCAA Tournament. But here are five things we’ve learned about the team heading into the final nine regular-season games, which will determine Iowa’s ultimate fate:
A wealth of options
Jok is the unquestioned leader, as expected. But it’s been remarkable how many of Iowa’s other 12 scholarship players have had their moments in the spotlight.
Freshman forward Tyler Cook, the most highly touted of Iowa’s six rookies, has scored in double figures 10 times despite missing seven games to injury.
It only took freshman Jordan Bohannon six games to earn the starting point guard spot, and when he did he responded with 23 points in a loss at Notre Dame. Six double-figure-scoring games have followed, in addition to 103 assists vs. 50 turnovers for the season.
Sophomore Nicholas Baer has replaced Jok in the starting lineup, but even when he came off the bench he proved to be the team’s second most valuable player. He has scored 10 or more points five times, grabbled 10 or more rebounds in four games, and leads the team in blocked shots (30) and steals (29).
Freshman Isaiah Moss earned a starting spot and has had four double-figure-scoring games, including 17 at Nebraska when he was the only reason the Hawkeyes were able to hang close in the first half.
Freshman forward Cordell Pemsl is averaging 9 points per game on a remarkable 63.4 percent shooting.
Junior forward Dom Uhl lost his starting role early but was the hero of Iowa’s home victory against Rutgers, keying a second-half rally with 10 points, eight rebounds and five blocked shots.
Sophomore forward Ahmad Wagner is back in the starting lineup after his hustle and athleticism became too difficult to ignore. He has 28 points and 17 rebounds in Iowa’s past three outings.
Lately, freshman forward Ryan Kriener has strung together a pair of 14-point outings and worked his way into the rotation after not playing at all early in the Big Ten slate.
And sophomore shooting guard Brady Ellingson blitzed Ohio State in Jok’s absence with a career-high five 3-pointers and 17 points. He has been in double digits five times this season after doing so only once in his rookie campaign.
It’s no wonder that McCaffery frequently uses 11 players, looking for winning combinations. Depth is a strength of the team and the biggest challenge for the coach. Iowa is coming off its best team effort of sharing the basketball.
“I’m going to try to keep them fresh. We’ve got a lot of guys that deserve to play, a lot of different guys who are producing,” McCaffery said. “In terms of a sense of fairness, you’ve got to get them in there.”
Inexperience has shown on the road for Iowa, however. The Hawkeyes are 0-5 as visitors, four of the losses by double digits. The Hawkeyes have made fewer than 40 percent of their field-goal attempts five times this season, four of them away from Carver-Hawkeye Arena.
With every opportunity, McCaffery expects his team to achieve a breakthrough. He was encouraged by how the Hawkeyes played against Ohio State. Can this be the time they take that performance on the road?
“I think we’ve had some experiences on the road that we can learn from,” McCaffery said. “I just expect it to be better.”
Free throws costly
The Hawkeyes are making 67.9 percent of their free throws this season, but that number will be most severely impacted by Jok’s absence. He has missed only eight free throws all season, a stunning 91.5-percent clip.
The next three Hawkeye leaders in free throws attempted are post players, and the results have not been good. Wagner (49.2 percent), Pemsl (51.9) and Cook (60.6) must become more reliable at cashing in their opportunities for free points. Until then, opponents might figure it makes more sense to foul them than to allow easy post-up baskets.
“Teams have done that,” McCaffery acknowledged. “It’s a double-edged sword. You can do that and save a couple of points but you’re going to be in the bonus early, you’re going to be in the double bonus. So it could end up hurting you late.”
Rutgers no pushover
The Scarlet Knights (12-10, 1-8) have lost nine of their past 10, but this is no ordinary last-place team. Rutgers built a 9-point halftime lead in the Jan. 8 game in Iowa City. The Scarlet Knights just pushed Wisconsin to overtime Saturday before losing.
It’s defense that keeps Rutgers in most games. The team ranks second in the Big Ten in field-goal percentage defense, allowing just 39.1 percent of shots to go in. It’s the type of team that can make things sticky for an Iowa squad that prefers a free-flowing game.
“They’ve got size, they’ve got quickness. But they play together and I think that’s the critical thing with any defensive team,” McCaffery said. “Are they working together in unison?”
While the Hawkeyes try to figure out how to win on the road, they can take solace in their home schedule. Iowa hosts four teams that it’s more than capable of beating — Nebraska (4-5 Big Ten), Illinois (3-6), Indiana (4-5) and Penn State (4-5).
An 8-1 home record in Big Ten play would be a significant accomplishment for a young team, reason to feel good heading into the league tournament in Washington, D.C.
“The thing that excites me about this group is all these kids, they want to be great. They want to please. They want to be respected by their teammates, by the coaches, by the people watching them play,” McCaffery said.
“If they’re making mistakes, they’re struggling, they’ll work that much harder to get better. It’s hard at this level to be inexperienced, especially on the road. You’ve got to go through it. You’ve got to have some successes, but you’ve got to have some failures. You’ve got to be able to play through those failures and learn from them and recognize the value of every possession and how it impacts the end of the game. I think we’re realizing that as we go through it.”