Iowa men's basketball: Backcourt rebounding a primary focus entering Utah State matchup

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY — Five days after a 20-point loss at Iowa State, the primary topic of conversation surrounding the Iowa basketball team hasn’t changed.

And nor should it.

The Hawkeyes know that if they don’t fix their rebounding, they aren’t going to win many more games this season.

“That’s not a secret. All of us know that,” fifth-year senior Connor McCaffery said Tuesday. “That’s been the focus the past couple days of practice, and we’re going to take on that challenge from here on forward.”

While licking their wounds from a three-game losing streak in which they’ve been outrebounded by an average of 19.3 boards per game, the Hawkeyes (7-3) have been juggling final exams this week while also zeroing in on the biggest cause for such a differential.

They need everyone hustling for rebounds, not just two or three guys.

Last year, it was assumed that Iowa would do a pretty good job on the defensive glass, with national player of the year Luka Garza (who had great hands) and fellow NBA Draft pick Joe Wieskamp (an underrated rebounder as a wing) snapping up rebounds and kicking the basketball out to guards in transition.

But Iowa’s guards are smaller overall this year and not accustomed to being required to join the rebounding efforts. In games against Illinois and Iowa State, Iowa’s six primary guards combined for a total of just 10 rebounds — Joe Toussaint three in 28 minutes; Jordan Bohannon two in 48; Tony Perkins one in 49; Ahron Ulis two in 40; Payton Sandfort one in 16; and McCaffery one in 23.

Meantime, Iowa yielded 40 offensive rebounds in those games. There have been a lot of long rebounds, meaning even post players who are good rebounders — like Keegan Murray and Filip Rebraca — can do a great job of boxing out their opponent, but they have no chance to get the ball as it flies toward the perimeter. Iowa has given up too many second-chance 3-point attempts (or easy drives to the hoop) as a result.

More:As Big Ten play looms, Iowa basketball tries to get back on track

“Everyone that's out there has to do a better job rebounding,” head coach Fran McCaffery said Tuesday. “And we have to make sure we're not leaking (in transition), because we like to run.”

Iowa’s next chance to take its team rebounding approach to a game situation: Saturday’s 8 p.m., sold-out matchup against Utah State (7-3) at the Sanford Pentagon in Sioux Falls, South Dakota.

Iowa guard Tony Perkins grabbed one rebound in 49-plus minutes against Illinois and Iowa State. He's not alone. The Hawkeye backcourt needs to do a better job helping on the glass.

Players are pumped for their Pentagon return.

And that’s because of the fan involvement in the game. Bohannon called the Hawkeyes’ 80-73 win against Colorado on Dec. 22, 2017, as “one of my favorite games I’ve played here since I’ve been at Iowa.” (And that’s saying something for the program’s all-time leader in games played.)

That was a festive atmosphere, with only 3,250 fans cramming into the tiny-but-pristine basketball venue. It was a pro-Hawkeye crowd then, and it will be again Saturday — less than an hour from Sioux City. Fran McCaffery said he hopes the team can play there frequently in years to come. Iowa didn’t have a Gavitt Games matchup against the Big East this year, so this game against Utah State was a solid replacement.

“For us to get up to that part of the country where we have so many fans,” McCaffery said, “is something that's important to us.”

No starting lineup changes are planned.

Fran McCaffery said he would continue to start Joe Toussaint at the point-guard position, even though the junior played just 16 minutes against Illinois and 12 against Iowa State and scored two points on 1-for-8 shooting. The 12th-year Iowa coach isn't one to juggle his starting five, though he can’t ignore the Hawkeyes have gotten off to slow starts recently and are coming off their lowest point total (53) in 33 months.

“I'm not saying I would never change the starting lineup. It's always a possibility,” McCaffery said. “But it always seems real dramatic, and it's not really that necessary. Everybody puts a lot more emphasis on (starters) than they probably should. Those guys (on the bench) are all going to play a lot of minutes each.”

For the season, Toussaint (5.3 points per game, 3.7 assists) has played 179 minutes; Ulis (4.4 points, 3.3 assists) has played 173. Bohannon and Perkins comprised Iowa’s backcourt during long stretches in Ames, leaving Toussaint and Ulis on the bench together. McCaffery said he would try to play matchups as each game unfolds.

“We're pretty well stocked at that position, and I trust all those guys,” he said. “They've all proven that they can do it.”

Health updates: Lots of guys in the trainer's room.

Murray is continuing to get treatment for his sprained right ankle but will play against Utah State. Connor McCaffery is dealing with a back injury. Patrick McCaffery has a leg injury. That’s just part of the list. Much of the team also scheduled COVID-19 vaccine booster shots in the days following the Iowa State game.

“A lot of people are banged up. Some people are sick this time of year,” Bohannon said. “But we’re looking forward to getting back out there (Saturday)."