Iowa basketball is a title contender at Big Ten tournament thanks to improved defense and rebounding

IOWA CITY — Despite losing its final game of the regular season to Illinois, Iowa men's basketball is optimistic about its chances to make a deep Big Ten tournament run in Indianapolis this week.

And the Hawkeyes are not the only ones who feel this way.

Betting odds from Tipico Sportsbook have the fifth-seeded Hawkeyes as the third-highest favorite to win the conference tournament, only trailing Purdue and Illinois. 

It's not too far-fetched, considering how Iowa ended the regular season. It posted a 7-1 record in February, the best mark in coach Fran McCaffery's 12 seasons, and won eight of its last 10 regular season games. That's only happened two other times in the past nearly 30 years, 1993 and 2015. 

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Like most Iowa teams under McCaffery, the Hawkeyes are scoring at a high clip, leading the Big Ten with 83.3 points per game. However, the catalyst for their late-season surge is rooted in improved defense and rebounding from the beginning of the season. 

Iowa is currently 71st in KenPom's defensive rating, a near 50-spot jump from where it was earlier in the season. On the boards, Iowa ranked last in the 14-team Big Ten in rebounding margin in January. Now in March, it has climbed up to ninth. 

"Defensively, they have the best (defensive efficiency rating) in the league since (guard Tony Perkins) has been in the lineup," Illinois coach Brad Underwood said of Iowa after Sunday's game. "And that's an eight-, nine-game stretch. They're playing as hard as anyone we've played and their lineup change helped them in my opinion."

COLUMBUS, OHIO - FEBRUARY 19: E.J. Liddell #32 of the Ohio State Buckeyes shoots the ball between Filip Rebraca #0 and Tony Perkins #11 of the Iowa Hawkeyes during the first half at Value City Arena on February 19, 2022 in Columbus, Ohio. (Photo by Emilee Chinn/Getty Images)

McCaffery said on Tuesday that Perkins, listed at 6-foot-4 and 210 pounds, is a valued defender because he can guard any wing position but is tough enough to battle a post player in a switch situation. Another player he pinpointed with that ability is Connor McCaffery, listed at 6-5 and 205 pounds. 

He also said that Perkins can get even better once he gains more experience and can identify what opposing offenses are trying to do more quickly. That's where guard Jordan Bohannon has been most effective this season defensively, pinpointing exactly what's happening on each play and making snap decisions. 

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Overall, Iowa's a team by design that has versatile defenders and a few veterans with years of experience. McCaffery said he can't recall a team at Iowa that's had this type of combination. 

"I had a 27-win Siena team that was pretty good in that capacity, but we weren't as deep," McCaffery said. "And I've stuck with (a 10-player rotation), but I could go more if I needed to." 

Illinois' Kofi Cockburn (21) works the ball inside against Iowa's Filip Rebraca during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game, Sunday, March 6, 2022, in Champaign, Ill.

During this most recent 10-game stretch, Iowa has outrebounded its opponents six times and hasn't lost the rebounding battle by more than three in any game. That includes Sunday's game at Illinois, where it lost the rebounding battle by three, compared to a minus-29 deficit in their first meeting in December.

There's been more attention to detail, especially by Iowa's guards preventing long offensive rebounds on jump shots, which plagued Iowa early in the season. As a result, the Hawkeyes are able to play a lot more in transition offense. 

"That's helped us a lot," Keegan Murray said. "We're undersized against almost every team we play, so when we have guards rebounding like that, it just brings a different aspect to our team."

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The Hawkeyes have always been a dangerous offensive team but continued momentum in defense and rebounding make them a legitimate contender at this week's conference tournament.

"If you think about it, everyone's record is 0-0," Murray said. "All records fly out the window and every game is win or go home. For us, we're going to have a battle mindset, not take any possessions off and fight. That's what March is — fighting as much as you can and trying to win every game."

Iowa men's basketball injury report 

Iowa forward Patrick McCaffery (22) dribbles in the second half against the Michigan Wolverines, Thursday, March 3, 2022 in Ann Arbor.

Starting sophomore forward Patrick McCaffery is still battling a hip injury. He didn't play in the regular season finale at Illinois due to his injury and an illness (non-COVID) and his status for the Big Ten tournament remains uncertain. Fran McCaffery said Patrick would try to practice in some capacity on Tuesday, but to what extent he could go was uncertain. 

Big Ten honors for Keegan Murray 

Keegan Murray on Tuesday became the seventh Iowa men’s basketball player in the past nine seasons to earn first-team all-Big Ten Conference honors. In doing so, Murray became the first Hawkeye sophomore to be named to the league’s first team since Ronnie Lester in 1978.

"It's a big honor," Murray said. "From where I started my career at Iowa until now, I'm just appreciative of that and everything that comes with it. It's a testament to a lot of hard work." 

No other Hawkeyes made the second or third team, though Bohannon earned honorable mention and Patrick McCaffery earned Iowa's sportsmanship award. 

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.