By Pat Harty
IOWA CITY, Iowa – The Iowa men’s basketball team didn’t have a bigger fan than Peter Jok during his recent two-game absence while nursing a back injury.
The 6-foot-6 senior cheered enthusiastically from the bench as Iowa defeated Ohio State and Rutgers by scores of 85-72 and 83-63, respectively.
Jok saw his teammates not only survive without him, they thrived without him, and did so as a well-connected group.
Iowa, which plays at Minnesota on Wednesday, assisted on 45 of 64 field goals in the two games without its leading scorer.
Jok then returned against Nebraska this past Sunday and was more of a facilitator than a scorer during the 81-70 victory at Carver-Hawkeye Arena. He only made 2-of-7 field-goal attempts, but compensated with five assists, five rebounds and by making all eight of his free throw attempts, including six in the finals minutes.
Iowa assisted on 22 of its 27 field goals against Nebraska, and now has assisted on 67 of 89 baskets during the current three-game winning streak.
It would be easy to conclude after watch Jok play against Nebraska that he now trusts his teammates more than before the injury and is a more willing facilitator.
“I think that’s probably a fair statement, but I never looked at it that way,” Iowa coach Fran McCaffery said Tuesday on a teleconference. “It certainly appeared that way early. The game that sticks out in my head is the Memphis game. We really didn’t play well as a group and he goes for 42. We score 92 points because of him and lose the game anyway.
“Maybe right around then he was maybe showing a little of that. But I felt we had outgrown that.”
McCaffery felt that way because Jok’s supporting cast has improved significantly since Iowa lost to Memphis 100-92 in the Emerald Coast Classic on Nov. 26 in Florida.
Point guard Jordan Bohannon now owns the school record for most 3-pointers in a season by a freshman with 54 and still has at least eight games to add to his total. He also has 109 assists and just 52 turnovers.
Sophomore reserve guard Brady Ellingson in addition to shooting over 50 percent from 3-point range has emerged as a reliable ball handler and solid defender. he has 28 assists and just seven turnovers this season.
Freshmen forwards Tyler Cook, Cordell Pemls and Ryan Kriener all have shined at different times, while sophomore forwards Nicholas Baer and Ahmad Wagner continue to get better.
Junior forward Dom Uhl and sophomore guard Christian Williams also have had their moments.
“All those guys were coming around, so I didn’t sense that (Peter) was feeling that kind of pressure,” McCaffery said.
It’s silly to think that Iowa is a better team without its leading scorer. But it’s fair think that Iowa got better during Jok’s brief absence because his supporting cast didn’t have him to support anymore. They had to do it on their own, and met the challenge.
You could argue that Jok missing two games is the best thing to happen to this young Iowa squad. His teammates had to grow up in a hurry.
Jok deserves praise for fitting back into the group and for deferring to his teammates when the situation called for it against Nebraska.
Jok could’ve demanded the ball against Nebraska and taken more shots than he did because he has the green light from McCaffery. Jok has made too many big shots not to have the green light.
But instead of being pre-occupied with scoring, Jok helped in other ways and trusted his teammates to make baskets.
“Nobody is playing like a freshmen anymore,” Jok said in reference to Iowa having five freshmen in the rotation. “I feel like the two games I was out made everybody step up. And I told them when I get back, just keep playing like you’re playing and I’m going to do my part. But I want you guys to keep playing like you’ve been playing.”
It’ll be interesting to see if Jok plays the same way against Minnesota on Wednesday at Williams Arena in Minneapolis.
Or maybe the circumstance will call for him to have to score more. Nearly half of Iowa’s roster will be playing in Williams Arena for the first time. So it’s uncertain how the freshmen will handle the environment.
Jok is capable of scoring 30 points against anybody, but that’s isn’t necessarily a positive, considering Iowa is 0-4 in games in which Jok has scored at least 30 points this season.
The challenge for Jok is to fit his game back into the mix without disrupting the chemistry and the flow on offense. The victory over Nebraska was a step in the right direction.
The challenge for Jok's teammates is to do the same.
Iowa will certainly need Jok to make some pivotal shots down the stretch and to score lots of points. But the team is no longer Peter and afterthoughts on offense, and hasn't been for a while.
Jok's injury was just a reminder.
Iowa vs. Minnesota
When: 8:06 p.m., Wednesday
Where: Minneapolis (Williams Arena)
TV: Big Ten Network
Records: Iowa is 14-10 overall and 6-5 in the Big Ten; Minnesota is 16-7 and 4-6.