Leistikow's 5 Iowa basketball thoughts: Luka Garza Show must give way to supporting cast soon
Fran McCaffery’s experienced Iowa roster is filled with basketball junkies. Following afternoon practices, players head to their apartments, grab some food, kick up their feet and flip on the television to soak in more basketball.
They watch for fun but also with the understanding that they’re part of a team shooting for the 2021 NCAA championship. There's a curiosity to know where they stand.
“I watch basketball pretty much every night,” redshirt junior Connor McCaffery says. “… I'm always paying attention, watching player tendencies, (to see) what kind of stuff they are doing.”
The Hawkeyes have evaluated other teams in the Big Ten Conference when they can, of course. But as the third-ranked team in the country by the Associated Press, they also want to keep an eye on other teams they might (or will) meet down the road.
“We want to watch how Gonzaga plays, how Duke plays, how Michigan State plays … and how we are playing as a whole right now, compared to them,” senior guard Jordan Bohannon says. “I think that’s important to do to (compare) where we are now and where we want to be at the end of the season.”
Whether Iowa is worth of a top-five ranking will be revealed soon.
The Hawkeyes (3-0) host AP No. 14 North Carolina (3-1) at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday in an ESPN-televised showdown as part of the ACC/Big Ten Challenge. Three days later, they’ll host rival Iowa State. Then on Dec. 19, they have a date with No. 1 Gonzaga in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. Three days after that, the Big Ten season begins with a home game against nemesis Purdue.
Here we go.
After soaking in Iowa's first three games of the season — wins of 97-67 vs. North Carolina Central, 103-76 vs. Southern and 99-58 vs. Western Illinois — here are five thoughts about the stretch ahead.
No. 1: This can’t (and won't) be the Luka Garza One-Man Show much longer.
The Hawkeyes’ potential national player of the year is averaging 27.3 points … in the first half! He’s scored 82 of Iowa’s 150 first-half points (54.7%) and attempted 36 of the team’s 94 first-half shots (38.3%).
For all the talk about Garza becoming a more proficient passer, he has two assists this season. The Hawkeyes have had enormous mismatches down low thus far, but that changes Tuesday.
North Carolina plays four guys that can stack up to Garza’s 6-foot-11, 265-pound frame. They go 6-10, 240; 6-10, 265; 6-10, 240; and 7-1, 245. It’s safe to assume that Roy Williams will cook up the best defensive plan (and personnel) that Garza has seen since at least early March.
“They’re one of the best offensive rebounding teams in the country,” Garza said. “That's going to be a focus for us, getting those two guys off the glass. I mean, those four guys. They have a lot of bigs.”
No. 2: It was just one game, but Jack Nunge seems ready for a prominent role.
Nunge (6-11, 245) is a classic “stretch 4” forward but is more than capable of backing up Garza at the “5.” He scored 18 points Thursday against Western Illinois, his first game in 53 weeks.
If Garza gets two early fouls? Ride Nunge. If Iowa needs to match length with length, like against North Carolina? Go with Nunge.
Fran McCaffery made quite a statement this past week, noting that while Garza is the highest-graded player in Iowa practices, Nunge has not been far behind for the past 2½ years.
“He's been great for Luka to go against, because (of) his size his girth,” McCaffery said. “And that's what we're going to need in this league with these games coming up. He'll play a lot; he deserves to play a lot.”
No. 3: Now paging big-game Bohannon.
The Marion native seems to be biding his time after getting back on the floor after multiple hip surgeries. The 3-point shot hasn’t yet been there. He is just 4-for-18 from the floor and has zero free-throw attempts in three games, very uncharacteristic for a prolific scorer. But it almost looked like Bohannon was more content to fill up Garza — particularly over the last two games — than look for his shot.
Bohannon does look more fluid than he did pre-surgeries, and he does have 14 assists (to three turnovers) while playing the second-most minutes on the team (to Garza).
This is the time for the fifth-year senior to resume his deep marksmanship. If Garza is doubled underneath, he needs to look for the kick out to the school's all-team leader in 3-pointers.
No. 4: Joe Toussaint has the ability to elevate Iowa’s backcourt defense in bigger games.
The sophomore provides the team a much-needed edge defensively and has the type of quickness that’ll be needed against top-end guards. Having watched games involving No. 1 Gonzaga, No. 2 Baylor and No. 5 Illinois in the past week, it’s clear that Iowa doesn’t have the backcourt speed and defensive ability those teams do. But Toussaint is Iowa's best guy to help counter that.
To date, Toussaint has played the eighth-most minutes on team (only 47:25). That’s not enough. While he does lead the team in turnovers (seven), he also leads in steals (four). He was a deserving starter last season with Bohannon out. If Iowa is going to be a top-five team for the long haul, Toussaint needs to be more than a role player.
No. 5: It’s time to see this team in crunch time.
There have been some poor stretches for the Hawkeyes against vastly inferior foes, but let's also cut them a break. Joe Wieskamp didn’t return for his junior year to get a crack at North Carolina-Central; Garza didn’t return to prove he could dominate woeful Western Illinois. Team-wide motivation amps up now.
“We've taken care of business. I think we have to be a little more consistent,” Fran McCaffery said. “… When you're playing Carolina, it's a different animal. And you kind of have to be locked in every possession of both ends to beat that team.”
Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 26 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.