Hawkeye sophomore Joe Toussaint knows a point guard can never lose his confidence

Mark Emmert
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY, Ia. — On Sunday, Iowa sophomore point guard Joe Toussaint swished a pair of free throws in practice, turned and told teammate Connor McCaffery: “That will never happen again.”

Every Hawkeye fan knows that Toussaint was referring to the two free throws he missed at Minnesota on Friday with 14 seconds left in a game Iowa led by three points. The Gophers promptly sent the game into overtime and won it 102-95.

More:No. 5 Iowa pays for its many mistakes in overtime loss at Minnesota

Toussaint, who is gaining the trust of coach Fran McCaffery and his teammates, was angry at himself afterward, Connor McCaffery said. His teammates consoled him in the locker room and on the trip home. There were plenty of reasons Iowa lost a game it appeared to have won beyond those two errant free throws. One look at the 102 points allowed would tell you that.

That makes this an important opportunity for growth for Toussaint, who had made five free throws earlier in the Minnesota game and was an 83% shooter from the line as a freshman. But rarely has he been called on to be the guy closing out games, which is why the loss at Minnesota needs to fuel him, not just infuriate him. Jordan Bohannon won’t be around forever as Iowa’s point guard. It just seems that way.

“He was adamant about that,” Connor McCaffery said of Toussaint’s proclamation that he will never again miss two crucial free throws. “That was cool to see, I thought, his mentality in that. We all have confidence in him.”

By Monday, when Toussaint spoke to reporters, he said he had already “flushed” the Minnesota loss and was preparing for Tuesday’s 8 p.m. home game against Northwestern on FS1. Yes, Toussaint watched the film. Yes, he noticed the many good things he also did against the Gophers (seven points, three assists, no turnovers). But the result was a loss, so end of discussion, as far as Toussaint is concerned.

Asked what he learned from the game, Toussaint said simply: “Stay the course.”

Joe Toussaint is just 6 feet tall, but that has never stopped the Iowa point guard from driving to the basket. Here, he shoots over Gonzaga's Andrew Nembhard during a Dec. 19 loss.

Iowa fans are watching the development of a point guard in Toussaint, a native of the Bronx, New York, who started the final 20 games last season after Bohannon had hip surgery. Toussaint averaged 6.5 points with 90 assists against 62 turnovers.

But he didn’t play late in close games. That’s when Connor McCaffery took over at the point after starting at power forward.

Earlier:New Hawkeye point guard Toussaint brings Big Apple mentality to Iowa City

It’s the next step in Toussaint’s evolution, although it’s unclear when he’ll be called on again, with Bohannon and Connor McCaffery available as more experienced options for the No. 11 Hawkeyes (7-2, 1-1 Big Ten Conference).

Toussaint said he’s much more comfortable on the court in his second season, which stands to reason. Not only does he have 40 college basketball games under his belt, but he’s also surrounded by veterans and doesn’t have to carry heavy expectations.

“I let the game come to me,” Toussaint said of his improvement. “Last year, I was kind of nervous and just really didn’t know what to do in certain situations.”

Dec 25, 2020; Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA; Minnesota Gophers forward Brandon Johnson (23) shoots the ball over Iowa Hawkeyes guard Joe Toussaint (1) during the second half at Williams Arena. Mandatory Credit: Harrison Barden-USA TODAY Sports

Fran McCaffery’s decision to play Toussaint in the waning minutes at Minnesota sent a clear signal to the sophomore.

“I know my teammates trust me and I know the coaches trust me, because if not I wouldn’t be in the game at that time,” Toussaint said. “That boosts my confidence.”

Toussaint has never shown a lack of belief in himself. That’s more important for a point guard than perhaps any other position, but particularly so when a team is trying to protect a lead late.

Connor McCaffery, a point guard so capable that he led the nation in assist-to-turnover ratio last season (4.6-to-1), explained why.

“You are the one with the ball,” he said. “You’ve got to take care of the ball. You’ve got to make your free throws. Those are the things at the end of the game that really good point guards do better than everybody else. The guys that are really good under pressure, they can make big plays, but I think it also is making the right play.”

Connor McCaffery believes the Hawkeyes are loaded with players who can do that, pointing to Bohannon (39 assists, 13 turnovers this year, career 88.4% free-throw shooter), himself (40 assists, nine turnovers, career 75.7% free-throw shooter) and, yes, Toussaint.

This is important because of how excellent the Big Ten is this year, with nine teams ranked in the top 25, including Northwestern (6-1, 3-0) at 22. The Wildcats are the surprise of the league so far, with wins over Michigan State and Ohio State and an offense that will test opponents with outside shooters (42.2% from the 3-point arc), but also aggressive drivers and cutters looking for opportunities in the paint. Northwestern’s lone loss this year was at home against Pitt, which erased a five-point lead in the final seconds to win 71-70.

This is the first time Iowa and Northwestern have met in men’s basketball when both teams are ranked. Both teams also know what it’s like to watch a victory slip away late.

Iowa guard Joe Wieskamp (10) and Minnesota guard Gabe Kalscheur (22) vie for the ball in overtime of an NCAA college basketball game Friday, Dec. 25, 2020, in Minneapolis. Minnesota won 102-95. (AP Photo/Bruce Kluckhohn)

“It’s a game that we should have won. There were a lot of mistakes that we made late-game that we need to improve on,” Iowa junior forward Joe Wieskamp said of the loss to Minnesota, which leaped into the rankings at 24 as a result.

“It’s obviously unfortunate and disappointing that we lost this one. But we know it’s a long season and there’s going to be a lot of opportunities for us to win tight games.”

Exactly. Toussaint will get a shot at atonement soon enough. Maybe even Tuesday.

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.