By Pat Harty
What started as probably too easy of a schedule for the Iowa men’s basketball team is now presenting more difficult challenges that are proving too much to overcome.
That was the case again on Tuesday as up-and-coming Virginia Tech used its quickness on the perimeter to race past Iowa during a 79-55 victory in Blacksburg, Va.
Iowa unraveled in the second half as the 6-1 Hokies used their athleticism to dominate both ends of the floor. The Hawkeyes only shot 19 percent in the second half and were outscored 41-17 during the final 20 minutes.
“I was really pleased with our fight in the first half, our attention to detail and they followed the game plan and really battled them,” Iowa coach Fran McCaffery said on his post-game radio show. “In the second half, we couldn’t make a shot, and (Virginia Tech) is a really good transition offensive team.
“So we didn’t get our defense put together a few times and fell behind. We started pressing and started jacking (shots) a little bit too much instead of mixing up our jumpers and our post feeds.”
Iowa point guard Jordan Bohannon was a force in the first half, making four 3-point baskets. But the Hokies increased their ball pressure and used their superior quickness to shutdown Bohannon in the second half as he missed all four of his shots from 3-point range.
And with no other real option at point guard, the Hawkeyes struggled to get anything going on offense and struggled on defense to keep the Hokies from getting to the basket.
“We just seemed a step slow in the second half, McCaffery said. “We couldn’t get a loose ball, couldn’t get a rebound when we needed it.”
Bohannon is one of the best perimeter shooters to play for Iowa in quite a while, but he isn’t a true point guard in terms of playing style and skill set. He played shooting guard almost exclusively in high school, but now is playing point guard at a much higher level.
He handled the transition well last season, making the Big Ten All-Freshmen team, but also struggled to get past quick point guards on offense and to stay in front of them on defense. Backup point guard Brady Ellingson also struggles with the same thing.
That could force McCaffery to play a zone defense more than usual.
In addition to Connor McCaffery being out, Iowa still is adjusting to life with backup point guard Christian Williams, who announced on Oct. 26 that he would transfer after the first semester and is now headed to Indiana State.
The 6-foot Bohannon is beng asked to play an incredible amount of minutes and was exposed at times in the second half, especially on defense. And it seemed to have a trickle-down effect as Iowa became a sieve on defense and helpless against Virginia Tech’s transition.
Iowa used its size to control the momentum and the tempo in the first half, which ended in a 38-38 tie, but then size gave way to quickness in the second half.
And in fairness to Bohannon, he had little help on the perimeter as sophomore shooting guard Isaiah Moss was virtually non-existent on offense, scoring just two points. Moss is trying to help fill the scoring void left by former All-Big Ten shooting guard Peter Jok, who led the conference in scoring as a senior last season.
“They got after (Jordan) on both halves, the same with Isaiah,” McCaffery said. “They got up into those guys and we just weren’t efficient with getting it to the wing, getting it to the high post and throwing it in. And that’s unfortunate because we worked on that.”
Freshman center Luka Garza got into foul trouble early and was a non-factor as Iowa lost for the third time in its last four games. The 6-11 Garza has scored in double figures in each of Iowa’s four victories, but has failed to score in double figures in the three losses.
Tuesday’s game was part of the Big Ten/ACC Challenge and was indicative of the night with Purdue the only Big Ten to win a game as it defeated Louisville.
Iowa was closer to being at full strength with the return of 6-7 junior forward Nicholas Baer, but he had little impact.
Freshman guard Connor McCaffery missed his seventh consecutive game because of mononucleosis, while Ellingson had no answer for Virginia Tech’s athleticism.
Sophomore forward Tyler Cook led Iowa with 16 points, while fellow sophomore forward Cordell Pemsl came off the bench to grab a career-high 14 rebounds and dish out six assists.
“We just needed to come out with that same intensity in the second half that we did in the first,” Pemsl said. “And when we go down, we can’t let them keep punching.”
Iowa only scored five points in the first 12 minutes of the second half and that was too much to overcome.
The Hawkeyes controlled the tempo and led for much of the first half as Virginia Tech took some rushed shots and struggled against Iowa’s size in the paint. The Hokies only had two fast-break points in the first half.
Iowa was leading 30-28 when the Hokies scored six consecutive points, including one on a free throw with 4 minutes, 1 second remaining that came after McCaffery was whistled for a technical foul.
Bohannon then stopped the mini-run by making his third 3-pointer of the game, which trimmed the deficit to 36-33. He then drained his fourth trey to give Iowa a 38-35 lead with 1:25 left in the first half.
The game looked very winnable at halftime, but then Virginia Tech double-teamed Bohannon in the second half and Iowa had nobody on the perimeter to help pick up the slack. It's a strategy that opponents are likely to use against the Hawkeyes this season.
On the bright side, it's only seven games into the season and the Hawkeyes have struggeled before under McCaffery before finding a groove. Bohannon is also a gifted shooter who forces defenses to adjust to him as Virginia Tech did Tuesday.
Bohannon just didn't have any help, which was a concern even before Williams left the team.
Iowa’s next game is an early Big Ten opener against Penn State on Saturday at Carver-Hawkeye Arena. The Nittany Lions are hardly a power, but they are quick and athletic on the perimeter, just like Virginia Tech.