Take a look Iowa's foes this season. Tyler Davis/The Register
NEW YORK, N.Y. — Whatever your expectations were for the Iowa men’s basketball team coming into the season, it’s probably time to raise them.
No, the Hawkeyes didn’t secure an NCAA Tournament berth by beating No. 13 Oregon and Connecticut in convincing fashion Thursday and Friday at Madison Square Garden. They secured a trophy and a growing belief that they are on a path to national relevance.
This is not last year’s group of Hawkeyes. They play defense. They get nasty when it’s warranted. They stay together when teams punch back. They seize leads and hang on to them.
“Those were definitely statement games. I don’t think throughout the whole 80 minutes we had any doubt we were going to win those games,” Iowa point guard Jordan Bohannon said of a 77-69 win over Oregon followed by a 91-72 victory against Connecticut in the 2K Classic, in which the Hawkeyes trailed for a total of 1 minute, 57 seconds.
Bohannon was asked if it’s time to stop talking about last year’s 14-19 team, the one that got bludgeoned on the court and in the court of public opinion with regularity.
Not yet, he answered.
“I think we just have a different chip on our shoulder, more hungry,” Bohannon said. “I don’t think we’re going to completely turn the page from last year because we still have a lot of things to work on. And that takes looking at the past a little bit.”
True enough. Let’s look a little closer at the most recent past; at a 4-0 start for the Hawkeyes:
A more aggressive approach you can easily quantify
The most noticeable difference between this year and last year has been the physicality the Hawkeyes bring to the floor. And that has shown up in the free throw numbers, something both Nicholas Baer and Bohannon pointed to.
Iowa has attempted 153 free throws, making 120. Its opponents have shot just 67. That is a disparity that will almost always get you victories.
“Sometimes people just say that we’re tougher, but there’s some stats to back it up. I think you look at how many free throws we’ve taken,” said Baer, the team’s lone senior. “We’re aggressive about trying to get to the line and finishing through contact. That will show in the box score.”
“One of our goals for every single game is make more free throws than the other team attempts,” Bohannon noted. “When you’re in the double bonus early in the half, when you’ve got people in foul trouble, the defense is a little more loose.”
The defense has shown strides
Iowa was a poor defensive team a year ago, worst in the Big Ten Conference. The Hawkeyes haven’t begun league play yet this year, so it’s too soon to say things are fixed. But Iowa just put on back-to-back performances against top competition that suggest it’s trending that way.
Against Oregon, it was an interior game anchored by 7-foot-2 Bol Bol that was the biggest concern. The Ducks made only 36 percent of their shots Thursday.
Connecticut brought a four-guard style that was heavy on driving and finding open 3-point shooters, a big contrast to Iowa’s previous opponent and with only one day to prepare.
The Huskies went 4 of 26 from the 3-point arc.
Two days, two jobs well-done.
“I think it’s really important to notice how versatile we are,” Baer said. “We have a variety of lineups we can go to. We have a lot of length, athleticism from guys who can play multiple positions. We can combat either size or speed.”
They’ll see plenty of both in Big Ten play.
“It starts with intelligent offense on one end and then getting back and getting five players under the ball and kind of walling off whoever it is that brings it,” Iowa coach Fran McCaffery said.
Taking good shots limits transition opportunities coming the other way. The Hawkeyes were especially effective at plugging driving lanes this week. That’s what needs to continue.
The ‘X’ factor has a familiar last name
Finally, it’s not too early to say that Connor McCaffery gives Iowa a dimension it hasn’t had in two seasons: A backup point guard ready to play starter’s minutes.
McCaffery played 29 minutes Friday while Bohannon sat with foul trouble and gave the Hawkeyes exactly what they needed. He is fourth on the team in minutes (100) and leads the way with 25 free throws made.
“He stepped out into the spotlight and he played really well on offense, able to control the tempo when he was in there the first half. And when he came in in the second half, he was just as aggressive,” Bohannon said of McCaffery, who finished with 19 points and five assists.
His father and coach, Fran, noticed the same thing. Not that he’s surprised.
“He’s a gamer. He’s always been a winner,” Fran McCaffery said of his oldest son. “He knows and understands what has to be done in this game. Every game is different. And he gets that. He knows what he can do, what he can’t do. He knows who he’s playing against. He knows who we have, where they want the ball.”
And now the college basketball world knows it.
It was a statement indeed for the 2018-19 Iowa Hawkeyes.
Big Ten play starts in two weeks with a visit from Wisconsin.