Hawkeyes look for perimeter shooters to step up as opponents focus on Garza

Mark Emmert
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY, Ia. — Iowa center Luka Garza got more defensive attention Tuesday than he’d seen since high school.

And he hopes what Nebraska did to “limit” him to 16 points becomes the standard for Hawkeye opponents.

“Usually, teams won’t do that against us just because of our ability to shoot the ball,” Garza said Thursday of a Cornhuskers gameplan that included frequent triple-teams, daring other Hawkeyes to beat them from the perimeter. “Most of the time, those shots are going to fall.”

In the 76-70 loss at Nebraska, Iowa shot a putrid 4-for-33 from the 3-point arc while playing without starting shooting guard CJ Fredrick (foot injury). Fredrick will be out again Friday, when the Hawkeyes (10-5, 1-3 Big Ten Conference) host No. 14 Maryland (13-2, 3-1) at 6 p.m. The game is being broadcast on FS1.

The Hawkeyes expect another 40 minutes of defenders collapsing on Garza, a junior who is playing at an all-American level while averaging 22.1 points and 10.7 rebounds per game.

And why not?

Sophomore Joe Wieskamp is the lone remaining 3-point threat for Iowa, with Jordan Bohannon out after hip surgery and now Fredrick sidelined as well. These losses come after Jack Nunge, the team’s best “stretch 4,” went down with a knee injury early in the season.

Ryan Kriener is the newest member of Iowa's starting lineup, in for shooting guard CJ Fredrick (foot injury). The senior center knows he must start making some perimeter shots to help take the load off of Luka Garza inside.

Someone else needs to start hitting some 3-pointers for the Hawkeyes, or they’re going to watch their star center get swallowed up inside night in and night out.

Sophomore guard Connor McCaffery thinks he can be that person. He was 3-for-7 from 3-point range at Nebraska, both totals career-highs. Still, he’s a 28% 3-point shooter for his career and figures teams will continue to give him space on the perimeter until he proves himself.

McCaffery said he’s worked on getting more arc on his shot this season while also not fading away as he lands. Both were issues last year, he said.

It’s also been a running joke among his teammates that McCaffery only launches a 3 when the shot clock is about to expire.

“I’ll keep taking my looks as I get them. Try to be more aggressive, now that we have so many people out,” McCaffery said “We’re going to have to make some jumpers, and I think we’ll be able to do that.”

Senior center Ryan Kriener, who is starting in Fredrick’s place as Iowa coach Fran McCaffery uses a bigger lineup, also knows he must become more of a perimeter threat. He made his first two 3-point attempts in Saturday’s loss against Penn State, but is 0-for-5 since then.

Kriener played a season-high 28 minutes against Nebraska and blamed himself for the loss afterward. He had six points and seven rebounds, but missed on his three 3-pointers.

“I told them I need to be better, and I will be better,” Kriener said Thursday, recalling a conversation he had with his teammates right after Tuesday’s game ended. “I felt like I gave up 16 easy points. I missed some open jumpers. Got back-cut twice. That’s stuff that usually doesn’t happen to me, shouldn’t happen to me.

“If I correct half of those, we win by six or seven.”

Kriener is in a tough spot as he tries to adjust his game while playing alongside Garza. The two typically want to occupy the same space. He is 6-for-16 from the 3-point arc this season and is about to get many more chances.

“I can’t get gunshy just because, especially with CJ out, we need perimeter shooting out there and we need to stretch the floor a little bit more for Luka,” Kriener said.

Senior guard Bakari Evelyn is one more option for a heavier workload with Fredrick out. The transfer from Valparaiso has had one impressive offensive game as a Hawkeye, scoring 15 points in a Dec. 21 win over Cincinnati. Evelyn was 3-for-4 from the arc in that one, but is 4-for-18 in his other 14 games. He missed all three of his shots against Nebraska. Amazingly, he has yet to score a point in four games against Big Ten competition.

“He needs to shoot the ball. He's a good shooter,” Fran McCaffery said of Evelyn.

Iowa does get a potential wild card back in its lineup in walk-on guard Austin Ash. The sophomore who played at Mount Vernon High School has been out with mononucleosis but was cleared to practice again Wednesday, McCaffery said. Ash has yet to appear in a game whose outcome was still in doubt, but he’s not shy about shooting 3-pointers, going 5-for-16 from the arc in limited minutes a year ago.

One thing that won’t change for Iowa, even as its roster gets thinner, is a commitment to pushing the pace on offense. That has been a hallmark of McCaffery’s teams, and his players all said Thursday that it might be a key to combating the double- and triple-teams on Garza.

“Our transition game is our strength, and we weren’t pushing the ball like we need to,” Garza said after playing 36 minutes against Nebraska.

Connor McCaffery said bringing the ball upcourt quickly limits the time that opponents can use to set up their defense. If Garza can get position in the deep post first, he has been automatic.

If not, the rest of the Hawkeyes need to be ready to make teams pay for their attention to Iowa’s best player. That’s what didn’t happen Tuesday. Garza said he was surprised by Nebraska’s gameplan. He also was surprised by how Iowa reacted to it.

“If they’re playing that far off guys with the ball, you need to drive the space,” Garza said. “Our strength this year has been we all play confident, and against Nebraska we didn’t play that confident. They were leaving you open, different stuff like that, kind of shakes your confidence. But you’ve got to be mentally tough and just stay confident with your game and know you can score no matter what.

“I think you’ll see that going forward. If they leave you open, you shoot it, no matter what.”

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.

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