By Pat Harty
IOWA CITY, Iowa – His team has lost two games in a row, both of which were in conference play.
His best shooter has been mired in a season-long shooting slump.
His prize freshman injured his ankle in Monday’s 90-68 loss at Michigan State and is questionable for the next game.
And the next game is against a talented and surging Iowa State team on Thursday at Carver-Hawkeye Arena.
So yeah, Iowa men’s basketball coach Fran McCaffery has a lot to deal with right now, but he isn't ready ready to panic or question anything he's doing from a strategic or from a preparation standpoint.
His team just has to play better and show that Iowa’s 6-0 start and its two signature wins in the 2K Empire Classic over Oregon and Connecticut weren’t flukes.
“It's a long season,” McCaffery said Wednesday. “We talked before, it starts way before everybody thinks it starts now, and you have to temper your enthusiasm, and then also you might have a bad practice in September, might have a bad workout in June. You can't get too down. You've just got to keep grinding with it, and if you overreact to a difficult loss, there's nothing productive going to come out of that, and you try to keep your guys on path to continue to be hungry and want to get better. What can we do to get better individually, what can we do to get better collectively, and I think for the most part, you've got to stay positive for that to happen.
“You don't want to be unrealistic. You've got to accept defeat, and you shouldn't feel good about it. None of us did. But you don't want that feeling to linger and say, okay, let's go back to work and try to sort out what things were good in that game. There were some good things in that game.”
McCaffery might lose it at times on the bench during games, but those brief moments of red-faced rage hardly are indicative of his usual behavior.
McCaffery is similar to Iowa football coach Kirk Ferentz in that he tries to not get too high or too low during seasons that are filled with numerous peaks and valleys.
Iowa is currently in a valley after losing its first two Big Ten games, including the conference opener at home against Wisconsin, 72-66.
But that valley was preceded by a peak in which Iowa won the 2K Empire Classic in New York City while bolting to a surprising 6-0 record and to 14th in the national rankings.
The Hawkeyes are currently ranked 18th in the Associated Press poll and 19th in the coaches poll..
A victory over the Cyclones would give the Iowa players an emotional lift heading into semester exams next week, and would be a nice resume builder for the postseason, while a third consecutive loss would be a horrible way to enter a stretch where Iowa doesn’t play a game for more than week.
Iowa’s next game after Thursday will be against Northern Iowa on Dec. 15 as part of the Big Four Classic at Wells Fargo Arena in Des Moines.
“It’s been a grind this past week-and-a-half,” said junior point guard Jordan Bohannon. “The type of games we’ve played, it’s getting us ready for the end of the season and this is another game that we’re trying to build a foundation for ourselves.
“This is definitely a game that we want to win knowing that the break is coming. We want to end on a high note going into the next game.”
The good news for Iowa is that the home team has 13 of the last 15 games in the series with Iowa State, dating back to 2004.
There still were 1,600 tickets remaining for the Iowa State game as of Wednesday afternoon, which is a decent amount considering the opponent. But that also means Carver-Hawkeye Arena should be close to being full by tip-off.
“It’s huge,” Bohannon said of having home-court advantage. “Obviously, Hilton is a hard place to play in and a hard place to win, and lot of Big 12 teams can say that as well.
“But having the support from Carver and the fans, we know it’ll be rocking just like it was against Pittsburgh and Wisconsin. So we’re really looking forward to it.”
Thursday’s game would be the perfect time for Bohannon to break out of a shooting slump that has hampered him all season. He has struggled to the point where he asked his father, former Iowa quarterback Gordy Bohannon, to help him with his shot.
Jordan Bohannon missed multiple practices during the preseason with an undisclosed injury, and he thinks that might be affecting his shot.
“The amount of break that I had, I was out two-and-a-half weeks, so I probably didn’t have the same rhythm that I had most seasons,” said Bohannon, who is shooting just 30.2 percent from 3-point range. “I probably wasn’t in the (right) condition as I probably should’ve been.
“So I think I’m starting to get my rhythm back a little bit. And my teammates are doing a real good job of keeping my confidence up, and the coaches as well.”
Iowa could be without freshman forward Joe Wieskamp, who sprained his ankle against Michigan State when he stepped on the foot of teammate Tyler Cook. The 6-foot-6 Wieskamp has started all eight games this seasobn and is third on the team in scoring with a 10.5 per-game average.
And with Jack Nunge already having decided to redshirt, and with Cordell Pemsl having season-ending knee surgery, Iowa could have some issues with regard to depth, and that would be something new for McCaffery.
"It's getting better," Fran McCaffery said of Wieskamp's injury. "Just there isn't a lot of time between games. It would be better if there was a little more time."
Senior forward Nicholas Baer probably would start if Wieskamp is unavailable, while sophomore walk-on Riley Till could be added to the rotation.
“We’re still optimistic that Joe can come back,” Baer said. “But if he’s not able to, then, yeah, I’ll be ready to step up. That’s kind of been our MO all season, just the next guy in, whoever is available and just fill the role that you have.”
The result from Thursday’s game won’t make or break Iowa’s season or set a tone for the rest of the season because it’s just one game, and it’s a nonconference game.
But it is a chance for Iowa to get a signature win, especially since Iowa State looks better on paper right now than both Oregon and Connecticut, which are Iowa’s two biggest wins to date.
Thursday’s game will be Iowa State’s first true road game this season. The Cyclones are 5-0 at home and 2-1 on neutral floors. Iowa State’s lone setback was a 71-66 loss to Arizona in the quarterfinals of the Maui Invitational.
The Cyclones are getting close to being at full strength as forwards Cameron Lard and Zoran Talley both returned from suspension in Monday’s victory over North Dakota State.
The one missing piece is sophomore standout guard Lindell Wigginton, who has been out since early November with a left foot injury. His status for Thursday’s game is uncertain.
Nebraska transfer Michael Jacobson and Virginia transfer Marial Shayock both have provided a spark for Iowa State this season, along with heralded freshman Talen Horton-Tucker and senior guard Nick Weiler-Babb.
“I've been really impressed with their team,” McCaffery said. “I think in particular their ball movement. They've got a lot of weapons, and they have some new guys, some that were there last year but didn't play because they were sitting out. But when you have that many weapons, you've got some freshmen, you've got transfers, they play together. Jacobson has looked really good, Shayok has been terrific, Horton-Tucker, Weiler-Babb has always been really solid. He kind of goes and scores when he has to and then moves it, keeps everybody involved.
“But they're getting great play off their guys off the bench. They've got some guys healthy and some guys I guess were suspended, now they're back. So that gives them more depth. I think the other guys benefitted for a little bit of that period of time when the other guys were out, they got a chance to play more. Jacobson's numbers are really good, playing with great confidence. He's a fourth-year player now, played two years in our league.”
Iowa State vs. Iowa
When: Thursday, 7 p.m.
Where: Carver-Hawkeye Arena
Series: Iowa holds a 44-27 advantage in the series, but Iowa State has won four of the last five meetings. Iowa holds a 28-7 advantage in games played in Iowa City.