By Pat Harty
IOWA CITY, Iowa – Ready or not, the Big Ten schedule has arrived sooner than ever for the Iowa men’s basketball team.
And it’s easy to question whether Iowa is ready with it having lost three of the last four games, including a 79-55 rout at Virginia Tech on Wednesday.
The 4-3 Hawkeyes will face 6-2 Penn State in the Big Ten opener on Saturday at Carver-Hawkeye Arena in what is the earliest conference opener in program history.
“It’s kind of weird,” said sophomore point guard Jordan Bohannon. “I think it’s the earliest Big Ten game we’ve had. But we’re excited. This is a good team coming in and it should be a fun game for us.”
Following Saturday’s conference opener, Iowa will have just one day to prepare for its first Big Ten road game at Indiana on Monday. Then it's back to playing six consecutive nonconference games, including the annual showdown against Iowa State on Thursday in Ames, before returning to Big Ten action against Michigan on Jan. 2 at Carver-Hawkeye Arena.
The conference schedule is different this season due to the Big Ten Tournament being held a week earlier than usual at Madison Square Garden in New York City. The tournament was moved up a week because Madison Square Garden will host the Big East Tournament during the week in which the Big Ten Tournament is usually held.
Iowa coach Fran McCaffery is no stranger to playing conference games in early December because that was the setup at Siena, where McCaffery coached before coming to Iowa in 2010.
“I'm used to it myself, but I'm not playing, so it doesn't matter,” McCaffery said. “Our players, it's different. But it's like anything else, you just play the next game when you're scheduled. You don't think about it that much.
“Obviously, it has great importance, I think greater importance being that it's a conference game. I don't think there's any question about that. We have great respect for that program and know we have to play well to win.”
Iowa has played well at times this season, but consistency has been a problem.
The 24-point drubbing at Virginia Tech was sort of microcosm of the season in that Iowa played well in the first half before unraveling in the second half. The game was tied 38-38 at halftime, but then Iowa was outscored 41-17 in the second half.
“They went on a little run, we got a little three happy, instead of moving the ball like we wanted to and mixing up our post feeds and jump shots, stuff you've got to learn from,” McCaffery said of the Virginia Tech loss. “We didn't play with the same level of concentration we needed to in the second half and started launching.
“Sometimes you can hit a few and get back in it quick, and sometimes it makes it worse, and that's what happened.”
The 6-foot Bohannon scored 12 points in the first half against Virginia Tech, but was held scoreless in the second half as the Hokies picked up their defensive intensity.
Iowa is adjusting to life without All-Big Ten shooting guard Peter Jok, who led the conference in scoring last season as a senior with a 19.9 per-game average. Jok often drew two and three defenders, which made it easier for Bohannon, and for 6-5 shooting guard Isaiah Moss to get open looks.
“Obviously, I’ve noticed it because they’re guarding me 95 feet from the basket and they’re face guarding me and doing whatever they can for me to not even get the ball back,” Bohannon said of opposing defenses. “So that’s something I talked with Isaiah about a little bit because there is going to be guys face-guarding me and he is going to have the opportunity to go one-on-one, penetrate to the lane and stuff like that.
“I need to start using that to my advantage as well, trying to get into the paint because I didn’t do that against Virginia Tech.”
Moss also struggled against the Hokies, scoring a season low two points on 1-of-6 shooting from the field.
“I know it’s a team game, but I definitely have to do my part and step up,” said Moss, who started the final 28 games last season alongside Bohannon and Jok in the backcourt.
Moss is also feeling the effects of playing without Jok on offense. He said Friday that defenders are more up into him and he expects it to last throughout the season.
“Last year they weren’t playing me like this,” Moss said. “But I know what I’ve got to do, so I’m going to be fine.”
Moss said he has to be stronger with the ball, and the same could be said about Bohannon, who has the daunting task of not only being the starting point guard, but also one of the team’s primary scorers.
Iowa’s point guard depth has been depleted with Christian Williams having left the team in late October and with freshman Connor McCaffery still out with mononucleosis.
Fran McCaffery said Friday that he expects his son to receive medical clearance to resume practicing some time next week.
Junior Brady Ellingson is filling in as the backup point guard, but his skills are more suited for shooting guard.
“With all the pressure that Jordan is getting without Connor, Brady has been solid, but he spent June and July, August, September, October making shots, and now you've got to play (point guard),” Fran McCaffery said. “He's a team guy, and he's smart, and he's good, and he's doing the best he can.”
When asked what message they would have for the fans who are concerned about the rocky start, the Iowa players basically said to be patient and that it still is early.
“We just have to keep working day-by-day and we’ll figure it out,” said sophomore forward Tyler Cook.
As for Penn State, it started the season 5-0 but has lost two of its last three games. All five starters return from last season and five Nittany Lions are currently averaging in double figures in scoring.
Sophomore point guard Tony Carr leads Penn State in scoring with a 21.3 per-game average.
“They’ve got some really great guard play with Tony Carr,” said Bohannon. He’s putting up almost 25 shot per game and he’s scoring an outrageous amount of points every game. So he’s obviously one we need to lock in on.
“They got some really good key guards that make their team go.”
Iowa has won nine of the last 13 games against Penn State, including a 90-79 victory in the regular-season finale last season at Carver-Hawkeye Arena.
Iowa also holds a commanding 17-3 advantage in games played in Iowa City, so there is reason to be optimistic despite the slow start, which has some fans feeling uneasy.
Bohannon has reached out to fans on social media with a message to relax.
“I think I’ve said it probably a little too much on social media,” Bohannon said. “Just me being the point guard position and me trying to bring everyone together on the team, and me being close to the fans that I kind of want to be, just try to calm down a little bit because it obviously is still early in the season. There is a lot that we can still accomplish.”
Iowa was in a worse situation last season after losing to Omaha 98-89 at home to fall to 3-5. Fans were losing hope, but the team responded with a five-game winning streak and barely missed making the NCAA Tournament for the fourth season in a row.
“I think the main thing that all of us are taking away from this is we worked way too hard in our entire lives to get to this point to kind of be defined by these couple games that we’ve had to start the season,” Bohannon said. “We worked countless hours to be here and we can’t let anything from the outside get us down or within the team get us down. We just have to keep working every day and try to make the most of it.”