Iowa hopes to draw on lessons from win over Rutgers to make rematch a turning point
IOWA CITY, Ia. — The Iowa men’s basketball team sent Rutgers into a tailspin last month with superb play in the final minutes of a 77-75 road win.
The Scarlet Knights were ranked 14th ahead of that Jan. 2 matchup, but lost four more games after it to get left behind in the Big Ten Conference race.
The Hawkeyes eventually stretched their winning streak to five games and climbed into the top-five of the national polls. But they’ve lost four of five since, while Rutgers has righted itself with four consecutive wins.
And now they meet again, with Iowa staggering and sitting at 16th in the coaches’ poll, Rutgers ascending and eager for revenge. Tipoff is 6:30 p.m. Wednesday at Carver-Hawkeye Arena, with the Big Ten Network handling the broadcast.
“We can either put our heads down, mope about it, feel sad for ourselves,” Iowa freshman Keegan Murray said Tuesday. “Or we can go out with the mindset that we’re the team that we felt like we could be at the beginning of the year, that we have shown. And that’s something that we all believe in right now. We’re going to get back in the win column this week.”
It was Murray who calmly sank a pair of free throws with 16 seconds remaining that proved to be the 19th and final lead change in that win at Rutgers. Playing extended minutes after Connor McCaffery was injured early in the game, Murray was the dynamo Iowa needed him to be and an “X” factor Rutgers was unprepared to stop. He finished with 14 points, nine rebounds, three steals and three blocked shots.
“I got to experience just that adversity you have in the Big Ten playing on the road,” Murray said. “That game really helped our team believe that we can win all our games. We’ve just got to get back on that track.”
Murray has started three times since, replacing injured guard CJ Fredrick. He may start Wednesday’s game on the bench again, however, as Iowa coach Fran McCaffery said Tuesday his expectation is that Fredrick will be back in the lineup. Fredrick has been battling a lower-leg injury that McCaffery said will probably be an issue for the rest of the season.
Fredrick was among the Hawkeyes who made big baskets late to overcome a seven-point deficit in the final 9 minutes to beat Rutgers. It was the reverse of the script the Hawkeyes have been following in recent games. They had a second-half lead in each of their five Big Ten losses. They have played in three games that came down to the final play in regulation, and Rutgers remains the only one they’ve won (Iowa lost in overtime at Minnesota on Dec. 25 and on a last-second shot at Indiana on Sunday).
So reviewing the film of the first Rutgers meeting should inject confidence in the Hawkeyes. It shows a gritty rally that began and ended with a pair of free throws by Murray, the rookie who came of age on that Saturday afternoon. Veterans Joe Wieskamp and Luka Garza each delivered tough baskets on which they were fouled, subsequently making the free throws for conventional three-point plays. Garza did that twice. Senior Jordan Bohannon drained a 3-pointer but also a fadeaway jumper that was Iowa’s last field goal.
“It’s one of those things where we kept fighting, they kept fighting, and we were the last ones standing,” Fran McCaffery said Tuesday.
“The same was true in our losses. We're fighting, guys are making big plays, and so are they. We're just going to try to be in a situation where we're the last ones standing.”
In Bohannon’s mind, that fight is more imperative on the defensive end. Iowa’s offense has been generally good, even late in the games it has lost, he said. But he pointed out a defensive sequence that was important in the win over the Scarlet Knights, when he deflected the ball out of Geo Baker’s hands and it ended up going out of bounds after a scramble, with Iowa getting possession.
“It’s just going to come down to the defensive end and getting a stop late-game to really get us out on top,” Bohannon said.
That’s the aim for Iowa. Rutgers will surely have other ideas.
The first meeting became a turning point for the Scarlet Knights; they don’t want this to be the one that changes the Hawkeyes’ trajectory.
That means contending with Garza again. He scored 25 points on 9 of 11 shooting in the first meeting. Rutgers coach Steve Pikiell is aware of the challenge, but also knows Wieskamp and Bohannon can’t be ignored. Wieskamp beat his team on a miraculous buzzer-beater two seasons ago; Bohannon had 13 points and four assists against Rutgers on Jan. 2.
“(Garza)’s great with angles and he’s got such a quick release that he can get shots off before double-teams, too. And then when you lose him, he wanders out to 3-point land and is as good a 3-point shooter as there is in the country,” Pikiell said. “You can always try to limit his touches but the guys around him are really good.”
Mark Emmert covers the Iowa Hawkeyes for the Register. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or 319-339-7367. Follow him on Twitter at @MarkEmmert.