IOWA CITY, Ia. — Iowa has had to tangle with Penn State’s talented frontcourt before.
Too many times.
But things will be different at 1 p.m. Saturday when the No. 25 Hawkeyes (10-3, 1-1 Big Ten Conference) head to Philadelphia’s historic Palestra to face the No. 21 Nittany Lions (11-2, 1-1) in a game broadcast on BTN.
Iowa has been using a four-guard lineup extensively since power forward Jack Nunge tore an ACL on Nov. 21. And that group will be asked to handle Penn State seniors Lamar Stevens (6-foot-8, 225 pounds) and Mike Watkins (6-9, 257) in a sold-out building as Big Ten play resumes.
The Nittany Lions are off to their best start in 11 seasons. Like the Hawkeyes, they have won four games in a row.
“I don’t think it’s just the big guys, because they’ve had those guys for a long time,” Iowa senior center Ryan Kriener said Thursday, discussing how to defend the Nittany Lions. “In the past years, they haven’t had the shooters that they have this year. And we’ve zoned them a lot and zoned them pretty well. I think that now that they have the shooters, it’s going to strain the defense more because you can’t just collapse on those guys inside like we could.”
Stevens averages 16.4 points and 7.2 rebounds. Watkins is at 11.2 and 9.4. Sophomore guard Myreon Jones is adding 14.5 points. Penn State is fourth in the Big Ten at 80.4 points a game.
Iowa coach Fran McCaffery will try to maintain his four-guard lineup because of how well it is functioning on offense (80.8 points a game). He pointed out that Stevens operates more like a guard than a forward, even at his size.
So Fran’s son Connor McCaffery, at 6-5, will likely get yet another defensive challenge in a season full of them. He was the starting point guard when the season began, but now operates as a power forward much of the time with senior Jordan Bohannon lost for the season after Dec. 19 hip surgery.
Kriener, Iowa’s most experienced player, thinks Connor McCaffery will be able to hold his own.
“He’s really strong, really physical. He’s going to give up (three) inches to Stevenson, but he’s going to match the strength,” Kriener said of McCaffery. “Connor’s lateral quickness is really good. He’s really smart bringing guys to his help. When Connor’s out there at the 4, I think he’s going to do a good job with that and get things buttoned up.”
Iowa junior center Luka Garza is more concerned about what will happen when shots are missed. Penn State averages 5.1 more rebounds per game than its opponents. Watkins had an amazing 11 offensive rebounds in an 85-64 win over Syracuse in November.
“He’s an elite rebounder. We have to a have a huge focus on getting to the glass and making sure they don’t get second-chance opportunities,” said Garza, who is averaging 21.6 points and 10 rebounds.
Iowa beat Penn State in State College 89-82 last January while holding Stevens to eight points. That was a team with Garza and power forward Tyler Cook inside.
This will be a much different test.
“Our team is always ready to play against the best players in this league, the best teams in this league,” Garza said. “The environment is something that fuels us, that drives us.”
How has Iowa handled the turmoil? Let McCaffery tell you
Iowa has been one of the surprise teams of the Big Ten early on with its ability to keep winning despite the churn to its roster.
During the offseason, the Hawkeyes lost three of their top six players (Nicholas Baer, Cook and Isaiah Moss) from a 23-12 team that reached the NCAA Tournament. Then came the injury to Nunge, Bohannon’s surgery and health issues that have kept freshman Patrick McCaffery off the court.
Fran McCaffery, in his 24th season as a head coach, said it’s been one of his most difficult years.
Two things have helped, McCaffery said: Other players have recognized the need to step up; and none has created any drama away from the court.
“It's, ‘OK, we feel bad for Jack, we feel bad for J-Bo and Patrick, but this is an opportunity.’ It's ‘I came here to play at a high level, I wanted to be on a good team. Well, I'm going to get a chance to play, and I have to compete and prepare the right way, know and understand philosophically how we want to play and have complete buy-in,’” McCaffery said.
“They're smart and they're together, and there's a real genuine love and respect for each other, so therefore they're able to step up. But we all know that these next 18 (games) will really challenge that in a big way. …
“There's just no issues in terms of off-the-court things that you have to deal with. Guys kind of take care of their business, a very professional, businesslike approach to what they're doing, which makes our job as coaches a lot easier.”
McCaffery scales back practices with fewer bodies
McCaffery is down to nine scholarship players at his disposal. That makes every individual that much more important when it comes to preparing for a difficult Big Ten road. Even walk-on guard Austin Ash, out with mononucleosis, leaves an oversized void.
“We have to be careful how long we go, how hard we go because there's days where you just kind of want a little more physicality, and you have to be careful because we're pretty much down to where we really don't need another guy going down,” McCaffery said of his practices.
Mark Emmert covers the Iowa Hawkeyes for the Register. Reach him at email@example.com or 319-339-7367. Follow him on Twitter at @MarkEmmert.
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