Iowa forward Nicholas Baer explains what happened after a 7-0 start. Chad Leistikow/The Register
ANN ARBOR, Mich. — The staggering reality of Iowa basketball's 2017-18 season is that this team’s average point differential on the road in Big Ten Conference games is minus-13.9 points.
And that includes one win.
Just three years ago, the Hawkeyes went 6-3 in Big Ten road games, including wins at Michigan State, Purdue and Indiana. Two years ago, 5-4. Even last year, 3-6 with wins at Wisconsin and Maryland.
Now, 1-7 on the road with one trip (at Minnesota next Wednesday) to go.
Yet despite those humbling numbers, the Hawkeyes remain optimistic that winning basketball is within reach as the season nears the finish line.
“That’s one of the beauties of college basketball, how it’s set up, you still have a chance in the Big Ten Tournament to make a run there,” said junior forward Nicholas Baer, one of only two upperclassmen who played in Wednesday’s 74-59 loss here at Michigan. “We understand that’s our main ticket to any postseason play.”
This year’s Big Ten Tournament is a week earlier than usual — Feb. 28 through March 4 at Madison Square Garden in New York City. Obviously, the only way the Hawkeyes (12-16 overall, 3-12 Big Ten) would make the NCAA Tournament is to run the table in the Big Apple. Whether that’s possible is certainly debatable, but it would certainly help if Iowa could avoid the scenario of winning five games in five days.
To make it four wins in four days — a feat the 2001 Hawkeyes pulled off under Steve Alford — it would mean reaching at least the No. 10 seed, thus avoiding the Feb. 28 matchups (No. 11 vs. No. 14; No. 12 vs. No. 13).
Currently, Iowa would be the No. 11 seed based on tiebreakers. Two more wins are necessary in Iowa’s final three regular-season games (vs. Indiana, at Minnesota, vs. Northwestern) to have a solid shot at 10th.
If you’re in the mood to grasp onto positive information, here’s a morsel: Iowa won its final four regular-season games a year ago, starting about now, with largely the same personnel.
“It’s all about who gets hot late,” Baer said. “Sometimes, you’ll see teams get hot in late February, early March, then they’re able to make a run. I think our best basketball’s ahead of us.”
Iowa’s coach assesses the nine early turnovers (and 16 for the game) in a 74-59 loss at Michigan. Chad Leistikow/Hawk Central
Nunge starts, then sits
Freshman forward Jack Nunge got the start at Michigan, his first since … Jan. 2 in a home game against Michigan. It was the third straight game Fran McCaffery started a different forward. Ahmad Wagner, who started Saturday at Ohio State, did not play Wednesday. Wagner had been ill for a few days.
Nunge’s promotion came on the heels of his scoring a team-high 18 points in Columbus. Unfortunately for Nunge, he responded by going scoreless with one rebound and two turnovers in 12 minutes.
Nunge played the first 8 minutes of the game, which was actually Iowa’s best offensive surge all night, then barely saw the floor again. Baer and Cordell Pemsl (who combined for four points in 32 minutes) got the nods at small forward after that.
Nunge’s limited action was a combination of ineffectiveness and coach Fran McCaffery’s substitution patterns.
“He never got into the flow. In fairness to him, I didn’t play him a lot,” McCaffery said. “I went with Baer. I went with Cordell. Cordell made a bucket right when I put him in. I probably should’ve come back with Jack.”
The Hawkeyes need Nunge, a 6-foot-11 inside-outside threat who can defend, to be a force. He’s shown spurts of it this season. He’ll need to develop consistency in Year 2.
Iowa center Luka Garza showed a lot of fight with 22 points in a 74-59 loss at Michigan. Chad Leistikow/The Register
Where are the 3s?
McCaffery began this season touting the number of quality 3-point shooters the Hawkeyes have. Yet outside firepower has been absent of late, especially on the road.
That was the difference Wednesday. Michigan shot 16-for-29 in the paint for 32 points; Iowa shot 16-for-28 in the paint for … 32 points. Yet the Wolverines made more 3-pointers (12) than Iowa attempted (10).
In their past three road games, the Hawkeyes are a combined 9-for-40 (22.5 percent) from 3-point range — 1-for-10 at Penn State, 6-for-20 at Ohio State, 2-for-10 at Michigan.
Perhaps one solution is reserve guard Maishe Dailey showing more aggressiveness. He’s actually one of Iowa’s most accurate 3-point shooters (40 percent; 24-for-60), but he passed up several open looks Wednesday. He didn’t attempt a 3-pointer and finished with two points in 21 minutes.
Part of the issue: Dailey is trying to learn the point-guard position, as McCaffery tries to find ways to free up 3-point marksman Jordan Bohannon.
Dailey should keep seeing the floor. He is a long defender (6-foot-7) who was disruptive in Iowa’s 3-2 zone.
“I thought his activity was good,” McCaffery said. “I thought he moved his feet pretty well on defense.”
Obviously, Iowa needs defense. Dailey provides some. The sophomore just needs to look for his shot more often. Consider this staggering stat: In Iowa’s past six Big Ten road games, Bohannon has accounted for 63.6 percent of its 3-pointers.
That’s Bohannon 21, Rest of Team 12.
Opponents are going to hound Bohannon, as Michigan did Wednesday in limiting him to 1-for-3 shooting from 3-point range, until other Hawkeyes loosen them up.
Productive Iowa sophomore Tyler Cook didn’t take his first shot until the 8:06 mark of the first half. Chad Leistikow/The Register
Cook gets star treatment
Iowa’s leading scorer didn’t attempt a shot Wednesday until nearly 12 minutes of game clock had elapsed. And Tyler Cook wasn’t even in foul trouble.
Part of it was Iowa was quick-shooting too often in the first half, when an early seven-point lead quickly slipped away. Part of it was Michigan’s defense. Cook was guarded by multiple Wolverines every time he touched the ball.
The explosive sophomore forward finished with 10 points, four days after being held to eight at Ohio State. He’s only attempted four free throws in those losses.
“I thought I would get a few more calls tonight,” Cook said. “I kind of expected (extra defense) going in, considering I was a topic of conversation for them the past couple days. I wish I could’ve got some more touches throughout the game, but it is what it is.”
Cook’s scoring average in Big Ten play remains 16.5 points per game. Next is a home game against Indiana, which held Cook to nine points in Bloomington on Dec. 4.
Look for the Hawkeyes to make Cook a bigger priority Saturday.
“I’m not necessarily shot-hunting,” Cook said, “but obviously I would like to be involved somewhat more offensively.”