Lessons from Iowa's games in Vegas: This team has mettle, but what is the ceiling?

Mark Emmert
Hawk Central

LAS VEGAS, Nev. — The Iowa men’s basketball team had better hope that what happened in Vegas doesn’t stay here.

The Hawkeyes played three hard-nosed halves of basketball at Orleans Arena on Thursday and Friday, dumping No. 12 Texas Tech 72-61 before surrendering a 16-point lead and falling 83-73 to undefeated San Diego State. That meant a second-place finish in the Las Vegas Invitational, but there were more positives than negatives for a team still trying to find its footing after one month of play.

Iowa got contributions from all nine members of its rotation over the two games and played with an intensity it hadn’t shown during five home games to open the season. Its record stands at 5-2 heading into a Tuesday game at Syracuse.

Iowa's Jordan Bohannon celebrates during Thursday's win over Texas Tech in Las Vegas. Bohannon started at point guard and delivered 20 points in his best performance of the season

Iowa center Luka Garza echoed a common refrain when asked to assess his team’s performance over 80 minutes here.

“I think 60 of them were excellent,” said Garza, who was named to the all-tournament team after putting up 26 points and 20 rebounds in the two games. “We’ve just got to work on our lapses when we get down and be able to come back and make a run at it.”

That was the one notable flaw for the Hawkeyes: a second half against the Aztecs in which they were outscored 51-32 and looked tentative and confused in their zone defense.

Here is what we know about the Hawkeyes coming out of this tournament that we didn’t know before Thanksgiving.

Bohannon shows his old form, but only for one game

Senior Jordan Bohannon made a memorable first start of the season in the win over the Red Raiders. Back in his familiar point guard role, Bohannon fired up the Hawkeyes with a pregame plea to summon their Big Ten Conference toughness. Then he backed that up by showing plenty of it himself, going a season-high 33 minutes on his surgically repaired right hip.

Bohannon remains the ultimate closer, and he was in Thursday’s game, scoring 20 points and making all eight of his free throws down the stretch to seal things. It was the Bohannon of old, and the Hawkeyes fed off of him. Forward Joe Wieskamp, in particular, benefited from Bohannon’s ability to command respect from an opponent. There was more room for Wieskamp to work and he made four 3-pointers en route to 16 points.

Alas, the Thursday effort seemed to leave Bohannon drained for Friday’s encore. He didn’t have the same spirit and scored a mere three points in 23 minutes.

Iowa won’t have to play back-to-back games again until, potentially, the Big Ten tournament. That’s the good news for Bohannon, who is weighing whether to play a full season or shut things down this month and apply for a medical redshirt.

The bad news for Iowa is, oddly, that Bohannon showed how vital he is. The Hawkeyes looked like a potential NCAA Tournament team with him at peak form. Without him? There’s lots of work to do.

Wieskamp not yet ready to take over

Iowa has played three quality opponents, and Wieskamp’s point totals have been: four (in a home loss to DePaul), 16 (against Texas Tech) and five (San Diego State). His best game came in Bohannon’s finest outing. He was 3-for-17 from the field in the two others.

If Bohannon can’t finish the season, this truly becomes Wieskamp’s team to lead on the court. He has the talent to do so. What he hasn’t displayed yet is the willingness. Perhaps a December stretch that includes Michigan, Minnesota, Iowa State and Cincinnati will reveal a Wieskamp more determined to become the alpha male this team needs.

Garza finally has an 'off' night, but there won't be many

The junior has been the fulcrum of Iowa’s attack all season, remarkably steady. He had double-doubles in four of Iowa’s first six games, and was three rebounds away from making it six-for-six.

What Garza hadn’t encountered yet was a game where he was limited by foul trouble. That arrived Friday, when he collected two in the first 8 minutes and sat out the remainder of the first half. Afterward, Garza was kicking himself for the first foul he picked up, terming it “stupid.” But the reality is that games like that are going to happen to any post player in the Big Ten. It’s a rugged league. Contact is inevitable. So are foul calls, both ways.

Garza still ended up with nine points and eight rebounds against San Diego State. If that’s a poor performance by his standards, then the Hawkeyes are in good shape. He’s as dependable as a basketball player can be. And he’s so passionate about his performance, and his team’s success, that it will carry him through any rough patches he sees.

CJ Fredrick is a competitor, plain and simple

The most complete 80 minutes put together by any Hawkeye in Las Vegas came from redshirt freshman shooting guard CJ Fredrick, who also earned all-tournament honors. He had 26 points and seven assists in 60 minutes on the court. Against Texas Tech, he buried a 3-pointer late that was the key shot of the game. Against San Diego State, he scored nine consecutive Hawkeye points when the Aztecs were threatening to turn the game into a rout.

Fredrick was plus-11 for the two games, the best of any Hawkeye. And it’s because he played with vigor at both ends of the court. Fredrick is known for his 3-point shooting — he's 13-for-23 on the season from the arc — but what’s most impressive about him is the way he senses exactly what his team needs from him, and sets out to do it.

“We’re a team with a lot of toughness,” Fredrick said after Friday’s loss, a bit of anger in his voice. “We get hit in the mouth, we’re going to hit you back. You’re going to see a team that’s going to come out every day prepared and is going to fight.”

Don't take your eyes off of Joe Toussaint

The true freshman point guard is quickly becoming a favorite of Hawkeye fans because of his pace of play and his willingness to take on anyone. Toussaint is only 6-foot, 185 pounds. He doesn’t always take the time to make the smartest decisions. But he never takes a play off, either.

On Friday, Iowa coach Fran McCaffery rode with Toussaint for a season-high 22 minutes. Toussaint had 13 points, four assists and two steals. He was so quick to the basket that he drew six fouls, and made all nine of his free throws. But he also committed four turnovers. He was just 2-for-11 from the field, with three of his shots blocked. This is what you get from him in his rookie season. And McCaffery is happy to watch it play out.

Joe Toussaint stands for a portrait during Iowa basketball during media day in Iowa City Wednesday, Oct. 9, 2019.

“He’s just an active guy that I think can change the complexion of a game. And once he really figures out exactly what we want, he’ll be even better,” McCaffery said. “But part of what makes him really good is he sort of plays with an edge and a little bit of reckless abandon. So you don’t ever want to get him to the point where he’s mechanical.

“He’s just got to go hoop the way he knows how to hoop, and affect the game in that way. And I’ll live with a mistake or two.”

There’s no doubt Toussaint will smooth those edges in his game in time. He’ll be better than the 35 percent shooter he currently is. He’ll cut down on the turnovers (10) and increase the assist total (16). But he gives Iowa an extra gear right now. And he didn’t hesitate to tangle with San Diego State guards Malachi Flynn and KJ Feagin on Friday. That’s the brashness in him.

“When we’ve got to get a bucket, I try to go get it,” Toussaint said. “Or if we need a steal, the dirty work, I try to do it. I try to be that person.”

A thinning rotation presents some challenges

McCaffery is down to a nine-player rotation now that starting power forward Jack Nunge is out for the season with an ACL tear and his younger son, Patrick, is sidelined with some lingering health issues. That rotation includes Bohannon. For now.

In Las Vegas, it played out like this: Iowa’s starters averaged 31 minutes each in the Thursday victory, basically pulling out that win by themselves. On Friday, though, the bench was needed, and not just because of Garza’s fouls.

Toussaint and forward Cordell Pemsl entered early and helped the Hawkeyes build that 16-point lead. Center Ryan Kriener provided nine points and five rebounds. Bakari Evelyn played a season-high 17 minutes and gave great effort on defense (two steals), some positional flexibility at both wing spots and even some power forward, and made his lone shot, a 3-pointer.

McCaffery has been criticized in the past for trying to use too many players in each game. That may not be a possibility this season. And he said he’s fine with that.

“I was really cognizant of who was really pushing hard and who was sucking wind. And who we had to get out so we had fresh legs, especially when we were behind,” McCaffery said of the second half against San Diego State.

“I think nine’s enough. … I think we have enough bodies rotating. We’re pretty fresh. We’ve got some versatile guys.”

Mark Emmert covers the Iowa Hawkeyes for the Register. Reach him at memmert@registermedia.com or 319-339-7367. Follow him on Twitter at @MarkEmmert.