Can Iowa men's basketball continue momentum at Rutgers? Here are a few things to watch

PISCATAWAY, N.J. − After a string of frustrating results, Iowa men's basketball earned a potential season-saving win on Thursday against Indiana. They'll try to build a winning streak Sunday on the road vs. Rutgers.

The Hawkeyes' 21-point comeback win over the Hoosiers snapped a three-game losing streak and gave the team its first Big Ten win of the season. On Saturday, coach Fran McCaffery noted a positive energy from the players with the knowledge that their goals are still in front of them

"When you're in those situations and you're that close, those (losses) can be really frustrating and they can linger," said McCaffery, whose team fell to Wisconsin in overtime and lost by four points at Penn State.

"I'm really happy that we were in another slugfest and got the win. I think the the players when they celebrate in the locker room together, it's a culmination of a lot of hard work. And it's also indicative of their ability and willingness to stay together."

McCaffery knows another challenge awaits Iowa (9-6, 1-3 Big Ten Conference) on Sunday when the team plays at Rutgers (11-4, 3-1) at 11 a.m. on Big Ten Network.

Last year's game at Rutgers (won by the Scarlet Knights 48-46) was a talking point on Saturday's Zoom meeting with reporters. The big takeaway was that Iowa's offense, which has struggled shooting the ball recently, must execute against Rutgers' stingy defense.

"I don't think (Rutgers defensive success) is that complicated," McCaffery said. "They play really hard. They have size, they compete and they're connected. They stay after you and helps when you have (Rutgers center Clifford Omoruyi). He is tough at the rim as a rim protector, he's as good as it gets."

Iowa forward Filip Rebraca (0) pulls down a rebound in front of Indiana forward Trayce Jackson-Davis (23) on Thursday at Carver-Hawkeye Arena in Iowa City.

The Hawkeyes will need consistent execution throughout the game, but the first half will be a focal point. Iowa has struggled recently in the opening half, and it's happened in a variety of ways. An ice-cold shooting night at Nebraska put Iowa into an insurmountable hole. The following game against Penn State was defensive-driven, and the Hawkeyes allowed Penn State to start 9-of-12 from the field en route to an 18-point deficit. Another slow start almost cost them on Thursday against Indiana as a lack of execution on both ends of the court resulted in a 28-7 deficit.

Center Filip Rebraca cited an "enough is enough" mentality to explain how the Hawkeyes mounted a comeback. McCaffery said that continuing to challenge the players to be better is how they'll find better success to start games.

"You have an option of switching the starting lineup, which we had to do last game anyway with (Patrick McCaffery) out," McCaffery said. "I don't always jump to that because it insinuates that the person who took out a lineup was the problem and that typically isn't the case. We just challenge our guys to be better ... the Indiana game, we just weren't very good. We shuffled the deck a little bit and called time out, jump them a little bit to jump-start the effort level and the execution, and obviously we got better.

"You can run more sets and less motion, you can play more zone and less man defense. I think there's there's tactical things you can do. But I just think you have to challenge your guys to be better from the opening tip in terms of all of those things together."

If Iowa is to remedy its slow starts and pull an upset on Sunday, the team will need contributions from everyone. Iowa's depth has been an early storyline as seven players have missed at least one game. Thursday's win was a positive sign in that McCaffery got good minutes from nearly everyone who played. Sunday will be another short-handed effort (Patrick McCaffery is out indefinitely), but Fran McCaffery expressed confidence in the team's ability to respond again.

Iowa coach Fran McCaffery reacts during Thursday's men's basketball game against Indiana at Carver-Hawkeye Arena in Iowa City. McCaffery and the Hawkeyes beat the Hoosiers and will try to get their second Big Ten Conference win Sunday at Rutgers.

"It has kind of been a continual, ongoing process of 'Who's out this game, who's out that game?'" McCaffery said. "I'm not afraid to call their number, and sometimes they play a different role. I think we do kind of prepare for that. In practice a guy like Josh Dix is going to play more than one spot. Payton Sandfort is the same thing.

"I felt like we had some versatile pieces coming into the season and I was hoping not to have to deal with (injuries) on a regular basis. But it's a long season. It's a physical grind and we had tough schedule this year. But the guys have embraced it well. I'm really proud of the way they've handled it."