As Big Ten play looms, Iowa basketball tries to get back on track
Following an expected 6-0 start to the season, the Iowa men's basketball team began an important four-game stretch in recent weeks. Their opponents — Virginia, Purdue, Illinois and Iowa State — were a stark contrast in competition level from earlier games.
The results? A last-second win over Virginia followed by three consecutive losses. The last of which, a 73-53 drubbing by Iowa State, was their worst showing of the season.
But head coach Fran McCaffery isn't pressing the panic button yet.
"It's been a tough stretch but that's what this level is," McCaffery said after Thursday's Cy-Hawk loss. "As I said (at the beginning of the season) it's a process. It takes time."
Perhaps the break in Iowa's schedule could not have come at a better time. Nine days will have passed before Iowa steps on the floor again on Dec. 18 against Utah State.
"This is beneficial for our team," Murray said. "We have a lot of self-improvement to do as a whole and individuals. I think it'll only help us moving forward."
Starting with Utah State, the Hawkeyes have three more non-conference games before Big Ten play resumes on Jan. 3. The other two are Southeastern Louisiana on Dec. 21 and Western Illinois on Dec. 29. They're a varying level of difficulty: Utah State's KenPom.com ranking is 56 while Western Illinois is at 168 and Southeastern Louisiana is near the bottom nationally at 308.
Competition level aside, this final stretch will allow Iowa to address and correct issues found during this recent four-game stretch. Carrying momentum into January's Big Ten slate is critical because the Hawkeyes are already in a 0-2 hole in league standings.
One of the key areas of improvement that led to another Iowa loss last Thursday is rebounding. The Hawkeyes lost the rebounding battle 50-32 to Iowa State and over their last three games have been out-rebounded by a 144-85 margin. In addition to giving up second-chance points via offense rebound, it's impacting their own offense.
The rebounding disparity is preventing Iowa from consistently playing with tempo. The Hawkeyes saw a lot of success early in the season turning rebounds into transition points. Without that input, it's harder to find an offensive flow.
"It helps if we get out in transition and run it a little bit more," forward Patrick McCaffery said. "We have to rebound to run so I think getting more easy baskets and being more active on our cuts, try to get the defense shuffled a little bit more."
What'll help Iowa's rebounding numbers is a healthy Keegan Murray. He's only recorded nine rebounds over the last two games (his season average is 7.9). After the game, his right ankle was wrapped in ice during postgame interviews.
He said then he's going to spend time in the training room during their break to heal up.
"When I'm 100%, I'm at my best and our team is at our best," Murray said. "I'm going to do my part, getting in the training room to help our team."
When he is healthy, what's the overall answer for solving their rebounding woes? Murray said the Hawkeyes have to play tag.
"Tag whoever you're guarding, tag and pursue the basketball," Murray said. "We haven't done that the last few games. That's one of our top priorities right now."
What Iowa's searching for most right now? Consistency.
One positive takeaway from the recent stretch was Iowa overcoming double-digit deficits against Purdue and Illinois. It showed "heart," according to guard Tony Perkins, but the Hawkeye guard noted that "playing from behind gets old." If they can keep a consistent intensity throughout the game, they wouldn't fall far behind as often.
Plenty of practice time plus a busy holiday schedule should serve Iowa well.
"It's opportunity for us to play better, more together," McCaffery said. "Figure out some things we need to get corrected, watch the film. I think that's our biggest challenge moving forward, being more consistent in all phases of the game."
Kennington Lloyd Smith III covers Iowa Hawkeyes football and men's basketball for the Des Moines Register. You can connect with Kennington on Twitter @SkinnyKenny_ or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.