Iowa men's basketball's last nonconference game signifies 'back to work' mentality

Iowa men's basketball coach Fran McCaffery looked back to this time one year ago and described it as "absolutely surreal."

The Hawkeyes were fighting through a COVID-laden season that directly affected their holiday plans. Last season Iowa played at Minnesota on Christmas Day. Pandemic circumstances prevented fans from attending the game. 

"Downtown hotel with 31 floors and nobody in it but us," McCaffery said during a Zoom call with reporters on Tuesday. "There was nobody on the streets, nobody at the game. We did what we had to do to play the season and we were actually happy to be together and to be playing, but you didn't have that family time." 

This year has been closer to normal. Iowa last played eight days ago, a 93-62 rout of Southeastern Louisiana, which allowed for players to spend some time away from basketball and with their loved ones. Now they're back, and the focus has quickly shifted to navigating a tough Big Ten schedule over the next few months.

"Now it's pretty much singular focus the rest of the way," McCaffery said. "Essentially you don't lift your head up until April." 

Iowa (9-3, 0-2) has one final nonconference game: Western Illinois at home on Wednesday night before Big Ten play resumes on Jan. 3 vs. Maryland. The Hawkeyes played Western Illinois last season and won by 41 points, but McCaffery said the difference to this year is "night and day." The Leathernecks hold a 10-3 record and have four players averaging double-digit points per game. 

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"They've got a veteran group, they got some transfers," McCaffery said. "They share the ball, play good defense and compete. It's hard to have 10 wins this time of year. They've won close games so they've played intelligently. They've gotten things straightened out in short order." 

Wednesday's game allows for a final tune-up before meeting with the Terrapins. So far, Iowa has taken full advantage both on and off the court. 

Three weeks ago the Hawkeyes suffered a blowout loss to Iowa State, part of a three-game losing streak before a nine-day break. Since then, they've won two games in convincing fashion (94-75 over Utah State and the 31-point win vs. Southeastern Louisiana). McCaffery believes that the days off contributed more than anything.

"We had a lot of nagging stuff going on," McCaffery said. "Nothing that really prevented anyone from playing, but those guys needed a little bit of a break to get healthy. We gave them a few days off, they lived in the training room." 

That included star forward Keegan Murray, who had been nursing an ankle injury since the Virginia game on Nov. 29. His last two stat lines — 35 points, 10 rebounds against Utah State and 20 points, 10 rebounds against Southeastern Louisiana — indicate that the nation's leading scorer is back to full strength. 

Iowa forward Keegan Murray (15) shoots the ball as Southeastern Louisiana's Ryan Burkhardt defends during their Dec. 21 game at Carver-Hawkeye Arena in Iowa City.

But Iowa's not completely full tilt. Backup center Josh Ogundele remains sidelined with a sprained ankle suffered in the most recent game. His long-term prognosis is not serious.

"He's not ready to go yet," McCaffery said. "It wasn't real, real bad. I suspect by next week he'll be back." 

An Ogundele return next week would be timely considering Iowa has two Big Ten opponents: Maryland on Monday and Wisconsin on Thursday, Jan. 6. McCaffery is fortunate to have an abundance of depth this season.

Early in the season McCaffery suggested that this might be his deepest Iowa team. Through 12 games the Hawkeyes have nine players averaging more than 15 minutes per game and 10 players above 10 minutes. A group that large that is well-rested and concluding nonconference play with potentially three straight wins is exactly what's needed to make up ground in a crowded, competitive conference. 

"We feel very comfortable going 10-deep, we've done that consistently," McCaffery said. "We got a lot of guys getting significant minutes and on any given day different players absolutely excel.

"A lot of teams are set up to have three, four, five guys do all the work and everyone else fills in. We're not quite set up that way. Patrick (McCaffery) missed two games, Keegan and Kris (Murray) missed a game and we've had guys step up. That's the type of team we have."

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 ksmith@gannett.com.