Iowa basketball can't afford letdown against last-place Minnesota
IOWA CITY — It would be an easy cliché to dish out given the situation — facing the Big Ten’s cellar dweller that’s firmly in the middle of a rebuild. But the Iowa men's basketball team can't afford to overlook a seemingly inferior opponent.
Fran McCaffery likely won’t bring up the Eastern Illinois loss with his team ahead of Sunday’s showdown against Minnesota (7-15, 1-11 Big Ten Conference). Iowa's veterans have almost certainly hammered that point home long before the action tips at noon. Expect the Golden Gophers to have Iowa’s full attention as the Hawkeyes (15-8, 7-6) look to rebound from Thursday’s tough loss at No. 1 Purdue.
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“We just kind of ignore it all,” said McCaffery, referring to the perception that a team is good or bad. “If somebody’s out (for the opponent), the next guy steps in. If we’re playing a team that has guys out, we totally respect the guys who’re in.”
Injuries have certainly hampered Minnesota’s growth, none more impactful than the loss of leading scorer and rebounder Dawson Garcia. The 6-foot-11 sophomore, who averages 14.9 points 6.3 boards per game for his third school in three years, has missed Minnesota’s last four games.
Aside from a near win over Indiana on Jan. 25, Minnesota has been blown out of every game Garcia has missed — with an average margin of defeat at 30 points over the Gophers' last three games.
Garcia would’ve been a game-time decision for Minnesota’s game Tuesday at Illinois, had the game not been postponed for COVID issues. His status for Sunday remains unclear.
“Throughout the course of the year, teams are going to be at full strength. They’re going to not be at full strength. Their best player might be out. They might have four guys out,” McCaffery said. “Clearly, Minnesota has struggled with injuries. When Garcia plays, it takes more pressure off of (forward Jamison) Battle and (guard Ta’Lon) Cooper. They’re just better.
“… Nobody’s complaining. You have a style of play, and you have players who are ready to go. And quite honestly, you have guys who — not that you’re hoping the guy in front of you gets hurt — but you’re looking for an opportunity somewhere or somehow to perform. So when a team has a guy that’s out, it’s not like we’re getting to play them five-on-four. Somebody else is going to play. It’s still five-on-five. And that guy’s going to show up and be ready to play — and he’s on a Big Ten scholarship — so he’s really good.”
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Even with the struggles, Minnesota has delivered a few sporadic bright spots this season. And it’s only natural for an opposing coach like McCaffery to believe his team will get the Golden Gophers' best shot Sunday.
Minnesota’s lone conference win came at Ohio State, a place the Hawkeyes struggled at earlier this season. Within the last three weeks, they've posted near upsets of Michigan (60-56 loss on Jan. 22) and Indiana (61-57 loss on Jan. 25). It’s a safe bet Minnesota’s lengthy losing streak, currently at seven, will end at someone’s expense.
“It shows you what they’re capable of, and they’ve done some incredible things when they’re not at full strength,” McCaffery said. “So I think we have a style of play that we try to execute every night at both ends of the floor, regardless of who starts and who comes off the bench.”
As the postseason lights get brighter up ahead, Iowa sits in a good NCAA tournament spot right now. The Eastern Illinois loss has been hurdled, and quality wins have been accumulated with a few chances for more.
Stumbling Sunday, though, would significantly derail momentum. Not overlooking Minnesota is of the utmost importance.
Dargan Southard is a sports trending reporter and covers Iowa athletics for the Des Moines Register and HawkCentral.com. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter at @Dargan_Southard.