Tuesday's Big Ten upsets help Iowa men's basketball team; can Hawkeyes take advantage?

Kennington Lloyd Smith III
Des Moines Register

The Iowa men's basketball team on Sunday experienced the difficulties associated with games that look like "easy wins" on paper. Last-place Minnesota hung with the Hawkeyes for much of the game before Iowa took control late for a 68-56 victory.

Iowa's next game, Thursday night at home against Ohio State (8 p.m., ESPN2) has a similar feel. The Buckeyes are reeling, having lost six consecutive games and 11 of their last 12. The lone win during that stretch? Against Iowa, 93-77, in Columbus.

Coach Fran McCaffery and players remember the Jan. 21 meeting well, and they realize that records mean little once the ball is tipped. Iowa is 16-9 overall and 8-6 in the Big Ten Conference; Ohio State is 11-14 and 3-11.

"Obviously they have our attention, they beat us by 16," McCaffery said. "They're in the fight every day, you can tell. (Buckeyes coach Chris Holtmann) has got them still playing hard, playing together, and I think when you look at their individual pieces that they have, they've got a lot of different guys that can score."

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Iowa men's basketball gets a boost in Big Ten race

Iowa's rematch holds significance to the Big Ten standings. After Tuesday night losses by Illinois, Michigan and Rutgers (all teams that Iowa defeated), the Hawkeyes were tied for fourth place entering Wednesday's action. Indiana and Northwestern, the second- and third-place teams, were set to play Wednesday night, meaning an Iowa win on Thursday would move the Hawkeyes into third place because they hold the head-to-head tiebreakers over Indiana and Northwestern (for now).

How does Iowa plan to avenge its previous loss? Better defense.

"The defensive intensity was not good by any means (at Columbus)," forward Connor McCaffery said. "They scored at will and that's obviously something that we need to fix. They were the aggressor more so than us, so that's something we're hoping to fix."

Iowa's second half at Ohio State was the Hawkeyes' worst defensive outing of the season: 56 second-half points allowed on 22-of-34 shooting (65%). The Hawkeyes' last three halves on defense (second half at Purdue + Minnesota game) were encouraging, buoyed to their press defense (26 forced turnovers in that stretch). Iowa didn't press Ohio State much because the Buckeyes employed up to four guards at once.

Hawkeyes need to clean up their defense to avoid upset

Iowa's on-ball defense in the half court will be key on Thursday. Ohio State's ball handlers were able to easily penetrate Iowa's defense in the last meeting, which resulted in looks at the basket and/or open perimeter shots due to poor rotations. And when Iowa did force missed shots, Ohio State got the majority of its misses back with eight offensive rebounds on 12 misses in the second half.

"Everyone was open," Kris Murray said of the last meeting. "They were getting open shots and guys were getting in rhythm. That can't happen when they have talent across the floor. Our ball pressure needs to be better. Defensively that's where it's going to start."

Thursday's game at Ohio State begins a six-game stretch to end the regular season. Iowa has a chance to secure a coveted double-bye in the conference tournament with a top-four regular-season finish. In order to do that, the Hawkeyes can't afford to lose games like Thursday's, especially at home. Fran McCaffery and his players pointed to a level of focus that's needed down the stretch, but mostly it comes back to two areas that haunted them against the Buckeyes: defense and rebounding.

Ohio State's Zed Key, left, posts up against Iowa's Filip Rebraca during the first half of their Jan. 21 game in Columbus.

"Obviously we have six games left, and all against really good teams," Fran McCaffery said. "So you've got to make sure that you're locked into the game plan, that you're staying true to who you are. We're going to push it, but we're going to be smart with it. We've got to fight defensively, and we've got to fight on the glass. There's a lot of different things that you can improve on, but at the end of the day you've got to defend and rebound."