Previewing Iowa basketball's Tuesday doubleheader: COVID-19 dominates the conversation

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

Before taking a short Christmas break, the Iowa men’s and women’s basketball teams will share Carver-Hawkeye Arena for a Tuesday doubleheader.

For the women, a 2 p.m. home matchup with IUPUI kicks off the afternoon.

Why 2 p.m. on a weekday?

Well, sometimes these doubleheaders just happen, women’s coach Lisa Bluder explained Monday morning. The women and men schedule opponents independently of one another. It just so happened that Tuesday was a date that both could line up a non-conference opponent in Iowa City. As a result, the men will host Southeastern Louisiana at 7 p.m. Tuesday.

Both games will be streamed on Big Ten Network Plus (subscription required).

“The non-conference season, you’re trying to get your home games. You can’t always worry about if it’s a doubleheader or not,” Bluder said. “… Do I like the doubleheaders? Not extremely. We’re playing at 2 o’clock in the afternoon. That’s not the perfect time to play to get a good audience.”

Iowa coach Lisa Bluder's team kicks off a Hawkeye basketball doubleheader with a 2 p.m. matchup against IUPUI.

Bluder is hoping families on winter break can come out to the arena. Tickets are reduced to $1 for this one.

More than anything, Bluder’s happy to be playing a game. The Hawkeyes lost three games due to a COVID-19 shutdown after positive cases were found in the program. They tried to convince Drake to come to Iowa City on Dec. 27 to reschedule one of those lost games; they also asked IUPUI if it would be interested in playing Tuesday’s game and another one Wednesday. IUPUI had its own COVID-19 shutdown earlier this season and had to forfeit two games.

“It’s not like there’s a whole plethora of opportunities there,” Bluder said. “But we did seek out those two, and they both declined.”

So, this is the final non-conference test for the 15th-ranked Iowa women (7-2 after Saturday’s 69-61 win against Central Florida) before Big Ten Conference play resumes Dec. 30 at Penn State.

IUPUI (4-2, not including the two forfeits) pushed No. 11 Michigan to overtime and is a good outside-shooting team (38.5% on 3-pointers). It won’t be a breeze.

The Hawkeyes are eager to find their rhythm.

The Central Florida game was a weird one. The Knights, who are coached by a former Hawkeye in Katie Abrahamson-Henderson, play a relentless combination of 3-2 and 2-3 zone defense that Iowa doesn’t see in the Big Ten. IUPUI will bring a singular man-to-man approach, by contrast. Against UCF, Iowa scored just three second-quarter points and committed 24 turnovers. Given that this was just the fourth Hawkeye game since going on pause in mid-November, that kind of choppy performance is understandable.

“They kind of force you out of your offensive rhythm by the way they play,” Bluder said. “So, I think it’ll be a better test (Tuesday).”

But Bluder assured the Iowa’s practices have been good, especially during finals week. Iowa’s usually high-powered offense will get back on track eventually, all-American guard Caitlin Clark said Monday. But missing two weeks of practices and having sparsely scheduled games hasn’t helped.

“We run a read-and-react, which is based off what your teammates do. It’s not always set in stone, your movements, your cuts and your screens,” said Clark, who shot 5-for-18 against UCF but still recorded 21 points, 11 rebounds and six assists. “There are a bunch of moving parts, and you’ve got to do that in practice with each other to get it down.”

Starting in Happy Valley, the Hawkeyes are scheduled to play four Big Ten games in 11 days. That’ll be as helpful as anything to help get Iowa back to its preseason top-10 form.

“I watch a lot of women’s basketball. I think we’re a top-15 team. I don’t think that’s over-stepping,” Clark said. “I think we can compete with anybody on a given night. We have a lot of talented teams in the Big Ten — Indiana, Maryland, Michigan — and I think we will compete with them. You’ll see that.”

COVID-19 pauses are happening all over college basketball.

More than 30 men’s teams were on pause or actively canceling games as of Sunday, largely due to the omicron variant. That includes three Big Ten men’s teams in Ohio State, Penn State and Rutgers. As it stands now, teams that can’t play a conference game due to COVID-19 issues will have to forfeit. An e-mail to the Big Ten about whether that decision would be revisited given the omicron variant was not returned to the Register as of Monday afternoon.

The Hawkeye men haven’t been hit with a break. All 30 players/staff are fully vaccinated, and most of the players received their COVID-19 booster shot in the days following the 73-53 loss at unbeaten Iowa State on Dec. 9. By the end of this week, the program is expected to be at 100% on booster shots.

For those curious on how the testing works: Players who are vaccinated are not subject to COVID-19 testing unless they experience symptoms or are exposed to somebody who tests positive. Certainly when you’re facing new teams every few nights, the possibility of exposure increases. Iowa athletic trainer Brad Floy checks in with the Hawkeye opponent’s medical staff ahead of each game to make sure they’re not experiencing issues or concerns.

"Guys made good decisions I thought last year, and they're still doing it," Iowa coach Fran McCaffery said Monday. "This go-around apparently is a little bit more aggressive, but obviously our confidence level is high because everybody has been double vaccinated, been boostered. And we're trying to be intelligent with how we live our lives and stay committed to one another.

"Not to say that (a pause) couldn't happen, because it certainly could, but I think we've done everything we can to increase the chances that it's not going to happen."

The Hawkeye men definitely want to keep things rolling.

Iowa (8-3) is coming off perhaps its most impressive performance of the season, a 94-75 rout of a very good Utah State team in Sioux Falls, South Dakota.

What was especially encouraging was the 35-point performance from Keegan Murray, who said his right ankle was close to 100% after the nine-day span between games. Murray scored 25 of his points in the first half, and the Hawkeyes look like they could be pretty dangerous again. Murray on Monday was named the Big Ten's player of the week after a career night at the Sanford Pentagon.

The win improved Iowa's NCAA NET ranking improved from 32nd to 23rd. That’s a valuable metric when determining the NCAA Tournament field in March, so it’s a good sign now that Iowa is seen as a top-25 national team despite its 0-2 Big Ten start.

Utah State, meanwhile, dropped from 35th to 44th. Virginia, which Iowa defeated on Nov. 29, has fallen to 84th, so the win against the Aggies is Iowa's best win to date.

Now comes Southeastern Louisiana, which dropped a 77-54 decision at Iowa State on Sunday. The Lions (4-8) have not been particularly competitive, having lost to Western Michigan — a team that Iowa defeated, 109-61. They are No. 301 in the NET. After this, however, the Hawkeyes have a Dec. 29 matchup with Western Illinois, which has a No. 96 NET ranking. Then, the Hawkeyes play 18 straight Big Ten games, starting Jan. 3 against Maryland.

In other words, Tuesday marks the last calm before the storm on the Hawkeyes' schedule.