Iowa men's basketball cruises past Ohio State at home, moves into third place in Big Ten

Kennington Lloyd Smith III
Des Moines Register

IOWA CITY − The Iowa men's basketball team relied on past lessons to avoid overlooking a struggling Ohio State team on Thursday night.

The Hawkeyes have fallen victim to surprising upsets this season, most recently to Ohio State in Columbus in a 16-point loss that snapped a five-game Buckeyes losing streak.

The rematch in Iowa City was much more enjoyable for Hawkeye fans. Iowa started the game with sharp execution on both sides of the court and rode a balanced scoring attack to a comfortable 92-75 win.

More:Leistikow: Putting Connor McCaffery's fascinating six years at Iowa into perspective

Iowa improved to 17-9 overall, 9-6 in conference play and moved into third place in the Big Ten Conference standings. Iowa trails first-place Purdue by two games in the loss column with a huge game at second-place Northwestern on deck at 5:30 p.m. Sunday.

"On our end we weren't connected defensively (in the Jan. 21 matchup)," guard Tony Perkins said. "We brought defensive intensity (on Thursday night), pushed the ball and did what we needed to do and that's what changed."

Connor McCaffery's career night put Iowa's offense in motion

Five different Hawkeyes finished in double figures: Perkins (24), Kris Murray (20), Ahron Ulis (12), Filip Rebraca (10), and Payton Sandfort (10), but the most impactful player of the night was senior Connor McCaffery. The starting forward recorded an impressive stat line of 13 assists, six rebounds and seven points. As impressive as his career-high in assists was that he did it without recording any turnovers.

"I told Connor after the game that I had never seen that," coach Fran McCaffery said. "Really impressive game by him on a number of different levels ... he was spectacular."

Connor McCaffery said a few elements worked in unison that led to his night: strong cutting by his teammates in half-court offense, running the floor well in transition, and knocking down shots when the opportunity presented itself. Thursday night was one of Iowa's most efficient offensive performances; the team scored on 41 of 65 possessions at a clip of 1.415 points per possession.

The biggest stretch of Iowa points came in the final minutes of the first half. The Buckeyes held a 36-35 lead with 2:56 to play, but Iowa responded with a 12-0 run behind a quartet of 3-pointers by four different players - McCaffery, Murray, Sandfort and Perkins − to take a 47-36 lead into halftime. After the break, Iowa's domination went to another level.

Iowa's Connor McCaffery (30) grabs a rebound as teammate Payton Sandfort (20) and Ohio State's Brice Sensabaugh (10) look on during the first half at Carver-Hawkeye Arena on Thursday.

McCaffery's impact wasn't limited to just offense. Ohio State's Brice Sensabaugh torched Iowa for 27 points in the last meeting. On Thursday, McCaffery drew the assignment and made the night difficult for the Buckeyes star. Three early Sensabaugh turnovers were part of nine team turnovers in the first half. He totaled five turnovers for the game and was limited to 16 points.

On a night when several individual players had bright moments, McCaffery was the common denominator. And assist-to-turnover ratio increased for his career to 3.59. The school record, held by Andre Banks, is 2.53.

More:Leistikow: Analyzing Iowa basketball's 6 remaining Big Ten games — and their NCAA Tournament impact

Defense, rebounding were deciding factors on Thursday

Iowa's Payton Sandfort, left, reacts with Connor McCaffery against Ohio State during the first half at Carver-Hawkeye Arena on Thursday.

Iowa's defensive meltdown at Ohio State was a big talking point throughout the week. The players expressed a desire to play more connected on that side of the court and did so almost immediately on Thursday. Iowa forced three turnovers within the first five possessions and converted every opportunity into points.

The 56 second-half points surrendered in Columbus also loomed large. Iowa allowed just 39 points after halftime on Thursday night.

"I thought we locked into (player) personnel a lot better," Connor McCaffery said. "We knew who we were guarding, stuck to player tendencies and scouting, so just attention to detail, and then when we did get stops we strung them together. We were getting three stops in a row and things like that."

Despite Ohio State shooting above 50% from the field, the Hawkeyes were able to build a substantial lead due to an edge and rebounding. Ohio State recorded an offensive rebound on 43% of its possessions (66% in the second half) in the teams' first meeting. On Thursday, Ohio State recorded only two offensive rebounds the entire game. Iowa led the overall rebounding battle by a plus-8 margin.

Consistent defensive rebounding allowed Iowa to take the ball off the rim and run in transition, which was a key factor in the offense's success. Over the last two games Iowa has pulled in 91% of possible defensive rebounds.

"That's crucial," Fran McCaffery said. "They missed 21 shots and only got two (offensive rebounds), you look at that stat and say you're going to have a shot to win."

Iowa's turnaround sets up a big game at Northwestern on Sunday

Third place in the Big Ten is an impressive climb for a team that started the conference slate with a 0-3 record. Thursday's win sets the stage for a great opportunity this weekend: a trip to Evanston for a rematch with red-hot Northwestern (19-7, 10-5). Iowa beat the Wildcats 86-70 when the teams played in Iowa City on Jan. 31.

More:PODCAST: Appreciating Kris Murray as Hawkeyes move up in Big Ten standings

An Iowa win would give the team possession of second place in the conference standings. A regular-season Big Ten championship is still a stretch but a coveted double-bye in the conference tournament is up for grabs with five regular-season games remaining. The top four seeds receive double byes.