By Pat Harty
IOWA CITY, Iowa – With each game, win or lose, we learn a little bit more about the up-and-down Iowa men’s basketball team.
On Saturday, we learned that Iowa can survive without senior star Peter Jok, at least for one game as the Hawkeyes defeated Ohio State 85-72 at Carver-Hawkeye Arena, and did so with Jok on the bench in a blazer and tie nursing a stiff back.
We already knew that the Hawkeyes were formidable at home, but to win anywhere without your leading scorer is significant.
Ohio State is hardly what it used to be under head coach Thad Matta, but any Big Ten win is special, even more so for an Iowa team that was missing its best offensive player and that used a lineup consisting almost exclusively of freshmen and sophomores.
Junior forward Dom Uhl was the only upperclassmen to play for Iowa on Saturday. The 10-man rotation consisted of one junior, five freshmen and four sophomores.
The future arrived on Saturday and it looked promising.
“For us to defend the way we did and for us to execute the way we did, I think is a big step for our program,” Iowa coach Fran McCaffery said after Saturday’s victory.
But now comes the hard part again as Iowa hits the road where victories, so far, have been beyond reach. Iowa is 0-5 on the road this season with four of the five losses coming by double figures, including a 35-point beat-down at Northwestern on Jan. 15.
The Hawkeyes will try to end their road misery on Tuesday when they face Rutgers in Piscataway, N.J. The Scarlet Knights have shown a pulse recently under first-year coach Steve Pikiell, defeating Nebraska 65-64 on Jan. 21 at home and nearly upsetting Wisconsin on Saturday at home.
Iowa defeated Rutgers 82-68 on Jan. 8 at Carver-Hawkeye Arena, but the Scarlet Knights have improved since then, especially at home, whereas Iowa could be playing on the road without its best player.
Iowa had enough firepower to defeat a mediocre Ohio State squad at home without Jok. But will that same firepower produce on the road if Jok can’t play against Rutgers?
“We understand that we we’re going to have to win on the road if we want to be competitive in this league,” sophomore forward Nicholas Baer said after Saturday’s victory. “So that’s something we’re going to focus on leading up to Rutgers.”
The inability to win on the road is often what keeps a team from achieving its goals. Learning to win on the road is usually the last step for a team in its quest to be successful.
Iowa has a long list of players who can contribute at any given time, and in different ways. The stars on Saturday were sophomore shooting guard Brady Ellignson, who made five 3-point baskets and scored 17 points, and freshman forward Ryan Kriener, who scored 14 points on 6-of-7 shooting from the field.
They both came off the bench and helped Iowa have 44-20 advantage in bench points.
But now can they do it away from the friendly confines of Carver-Hawkeye Arena?
Can Ellingson shoot with the same confidence on the road that he does at home?
And the same for his team, which shot exactly 50 percent in both halves against Ohio State? Can the Iowa players shoot that well as a group on the road?
And can the Hawkeyes protect on the ball on the road as well as they did on Saturday when they had just nine turnovers?
“We know that we haven’t been playing as well on the road lately, but we’re determined for that that to change,” Baer said. “So the more we can get production from our bench and having guys step up and fill their roles, the more successful we'll be.”
There is no mystery for why teams struggle on the road.
The fans, by creating a hostile environment, get most of the credit for why teams struggle on the road, and deservedly so.
But don’t ignore the facilities.
It takes time to learn how to shoot at a different basket in a different arena. And sometimes, there isn’t enough time to learn on the road.
Iowa won’t achieve what it set out to do this season without winning at least two or three games on the road. The Hawkeyes are shooting for a fourth consecutive NCAA Tournament appearance, but they only way to achieve that besides winning the conference tournament is to finish high enough in the conference standings to earn an at-large bid.
Iowa is midway through the 18-game Big Ten schedule with records of 4-5 in conference play and 12-10 overall. The second half of the conference schedule has Iowa playing five road games and four at home.
In addition to Rutgers, Iowa’s other four road opponents are Minnesota on Feb. 8, Michigan State on Feb. 11, Maryland on Feb. 25 and Wisconsin on March 2.
The Hawkeyes likely will be an underdog in every road game except for maybe Rutgers.
Iowa has earned that underdog role.
The team is fun to watch and you have to be encouraged about the future with Iowa’s current roster dominated by freshmen and sophomores.
But at some point, you have to win on the road or even the youth-movement story gets old.
Rutgers would be a good place to start.