Iowa takeaways: Defense digs in, Ellingson shows worth, Moss soars, Garza grabs rebounds

Mark Emmert
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY, Ia. — Iowa’s players didn’t realize how effective their defense was Sunday.

They just knew they were stopping Alabama State from scoring and then getting out in transition for easy baskets. The Hawkeyes forced 12 empty possessions in a row at one point in the first half, seizing control in an eventual 92-58 win at Carver-Hawkeye Arena.

“We were just out there playing defense and I guess the defense was leading to our offense,” Iowa freshman forward Jack Nunge said of that key stretch. “We were going out there and just trying to keep our man in front of us, talking. Our defense was great.”

Iowa forward Jack Nunge (2) goes up to try block a shot by Alabama State guard Tobi Ewuosho  on Sunday. Nunge finished with three steals and two blocks to key a strong defensive effort in Iowa's 92-58 win.

Yes, it was only Alabama State. But it was still a step forward for a Hawkeye team that has struggled on defense and is making improvement a priority.

Hawkeyes forward Ahmad Wagner said coach Fran McCaffery challenged the team to defend better, and he was eager to take him up on that. Iowa held the Hornets to 29.4 percent shooting in the first half, outrebounded them 53-38, had nine steals and six blocks.

“I think we were talking. We knew where guys were at. Even when we couldn’t see guys, the back line was talking, orchestrating things and that helped us be able to help the helper,” Wagner said.

McCaffery felt the defensive effort, and the transition points it led to, was much better than in Friday’s season-opening win over Chicago State.

“It’s attention to detail and personnel, which is not easy with a one-day prep,” McCaffery said. “When that guys catches the ball, what is his skill set? Is he a driver? Is he a shooter? They really spread you out and they run some slip screens. The other thing they do is they really get to the glass. So you have to be physical and you have to get five guys rebounding the ball.”

Ellingson is on point

Backup point guard Connor McCaffery missed a second consecutive game with an ankle injury. He has a good chance to return for Thursday’s game vs. Grambling State, said his coach and father, Fran.

Junior Brady Ellingson has been filling in as Jordan Bohannon’s backup in the meantime, and has shown that he is a trustworthy option. Ellingson, normally a shooting guard, had nine points and four assists with no turnovers Sunday.

“He’s always been a two guard and really shooting the ball well, and it’s great to have him feeding the post from the wing because he’s so good at it. And everybody runs out at him because they have to because he shoots the ball so well,” Fran McCaffery said of Ellingson, who was 3 of 5 from the 3-point arc Sunday. “There’s no panic in him and he knows what we want to do.”

Moss growing into role

Any concerns about the health of Isaiah Moss’ right ankle were quickly alleviated Sunday. The starting shooting guard, who came up limping in Iowa’s first exhibition game and didn’t play in the second, was active from the opening tipoff. McCaffery left him in the longest of any starter, until the second media timeout.

Moss had 12 points in 18 minutes, including a pair of 3-pointers and the dunk of the game off a feed from Bohannon in transition.

“I asked for it,” Moss said of the alley-oop pass delivered from close range with both players at a full sprint. “I didn’t know if he was going to throw it. But when he did, I wanted to go get it.

“In practice, it’s usually more (Bohannon) and (Tyler Cook) on the alley-oop. But I got my chance today, I guess.”

Iowa guard Isaiah Moss (right) tries to steal the ball from Alabama State guard Gene Davis during the first half Sunday at Carver-Hawkeye Arena. Moss and the Hawkeyes dominated the Hornets to move to 2-0 on the season.

Moss also showed that he can be a pesky on-ball defender on the perimeter. He usually draws the assignment of the opposing team’s best guard. At 6-foot-5 and with good lateral quickness, Moss can be difficult to drive or pass around.

“He can really lock guys down,” Wagner said of Moss.  “We saw that last year, too.”

Garza's role model

Freshman Luka Garza had his first career double-double Sunday, with 11 points and 13 rebounds. Five of the rebounds were offensive. The 6-foot-11 center said that’s long been a strength of his, and it goes back to his days spent studying the best rebounders in basketball history.

His favorite is flamboyant former Detroit Piston and Chicago Bull Dennis Rodman, Garza said, quick to point out he’s talking about on-the-court-actions only.

“He just exemplified what effort could do for you,” Garza said of Rodman.

“When I play as hard as I do and when I’m going with that effort, I’m going to go get it. That’s my mentality. I want to get every rebound every possession. There is no selfish rebound.”

McCaffery said Garza’s ability to anticipate where a missed shot is going to land is “uncanny.”

“Great instincts, long arms, physical, tough, relentless — all the qualities you want in an offensive rebounder,” McCaffery said of Garza.

Wagner's career arc

Wagner made the first 3-pointer of his Iowa career early in Sunday’s game. Of course, he had only attempted three previously. The 6-7 forward is known for his work in the paint, but is stretching himself this year as the starting small forward.

Wagner took a pass from Bohannon on the left wing and didn’t hesitate to shoot. He was open and in rhythm.

“When you’re working on something so long, getting it right in practice, you want to implement that to the game. So when it finally goes in, it feels good,” Wagner said.

There probably won’t be many more 3s for Wagner, but if he can keep defenders honest on the perimeter, it will open things up for Iowa’s offense.