Never felt Iowa had best team in Big Ten men’s basketball until now
Fourth-ranked Hawkeyes are tied for first in Big Ten and have won five games in a row
By Pat Harty
IOWA CITY, Iowa – In all of my years covering the Iowa men’s basketball team, which dates back to 1992, never have I felt that Iowa had the best team in the Big Ten.
Perhaps I’m a prisoner of the moment, or a Hawkeye homer, but I started feeling that way after watching Iowa destroy Northwestern 96-73 on Sunday in Evanston, Ill., and after having watched Michigan get crushed at Minnesota the day before.
This feeling might just be temporary because Iowa (12-2, 6-1 Big Ten) still has 13 conference games remaining with Indiana up next on Thursday at Carver-Hawkeye Arena.
A lot can happen, good and bad, over the course of 13 games.
And there is no guarantee that Iowa will play all 13 games due to the uncertainty caused by the COVID-19 global pandemic.
Iowa already has had two games postponed, the latest being Sunday’s game against Nebraska.
But for now, at this moment, I truly believe that fourth-ranked Iowa has the best team in the Big Ten on paper, and on the court.
And that’s exciting for lots of reasons, not the least of which is the sobering fact that Iowa hasn’t won the Big Ten regular-season title in men’s basketball since the 1978-79 season.
Iowa and Michigan are currently tied for first in the conference, but the Wolverines struggled to even be competitive against Minnesota, whereas Iowa has been competitive in every game, and dominant in many games.
I thought coming into the season that Illinois would be Iowa’s biggest threat, and that still could prove to be the case. But right now, Illinois is struggling and losing games it shouldn’t be losing.
The combination of Luka Garza and a deep and talented supporting that features multiple shooters makes Iowa extremely difficult to defend, as was shown against Northwestern on Sunday.
While the Wildcats took one ill-advised shot after another, Iowa ran its half-court offense almost to perfection, especially in the first half when Iowa assisted on 15 of of its 19 baskets.
Garza scored all 17 of his points in the first half, and then played sparingly in the second half because he wasn’t needed.
His teammates continued to build on the lead, and at times, made it look easy as Iowa had five players who scored in double figures.
Garza is obviously the first option on offense, and his teammates do a good job of feeding him in the post, especially junior guard Connor McCaffery, who has a knack for putting the ball exactly where it needs to be.
Garza deserves to take a lot of shots because he is a gifted scorer.
But Garza rarely takes an ill-advised shot, and he doesn’t hunt for shots like some prolific scorers do.
Garza does his damage within the framework of the offense, and is a willing passer.
Everybody on the team is a willing passer and that has helped to build strong chemistry, on and off the court.
That chemistry was in full display against Northwestern.
“I think we were just moving the ball well,” said junior Joe Wieskamp. “We’ve said all season long, we have a lot of unselfish guys who are willing to make the extra pass.
“Obviously, Luka was not quite as dominant as he has been. But he was also getting double-teamed and finding open guys.
“So it goes back and forth. We’re finding him. Now teams are doubling him and he’s finding the open guy, which just makes him so much better of a player.”
It makes sense to double the 6-foot-11 Garza because he is virtually unstoppable against single coverage.
But the risk with doubling Garza is that it leaves shooters open on the perimeter, and Iowa is loaded with talented and proven shooters.
From Jordan Bohannon to C.J. Fredrick to Wieskamp, Iowa has multiple players who can go off at any time on offense.
Freshman forwards Keegan Murray and Patrick McCaffery also are capable scorers, and are improving as the season progresses while seeing their roles expand.
The fact that Iowa hasn’t won a Big Ten regular-season title in nearly 42 years is incredible, but for all of the wrong reasons.
Iowa has come close during that time, finishing second in 1981, 1982, 1983, 1997 and 2006.
Iowa’s highest finish under current head coach Fran McCaffery was third place in both the 2014-15 and 2015-16 seasons.
The 2015-16 team was 19-4 and ranked in the top 10, but then unraveled down the stretch, losing five of its last seven Big Ten games and its only game in the Big Ten Tournament.
There is always the chance the current team could also unravel down the stretch, but that seems unlikely due to Garza’s presence, and with having so many veteran players who can make shots.
The game has evolved over the years, but it still comes down to making shots, and that is where Iowa excels.
However, defense could ultimately determine where this team finishes.
Iowa has played much better on defense during the current five-game winning streak.
“The reality is if you don’t play that kind of defense you’re going to have a hard time winning in this league,” Fran McCaffery said after the Northwestern game.
Top-ranked Gonzaga exposed some of Iowa’s defensive weaknesses during a 99-88 victory on Dec. 19 in Sioux Falls, S.D., and the Christmas day collapse at Minnesota was another defensive low point.
But ever since the Minnesota meltdown, Iowa’s defense has shown steady improvement.
It certainly isn’t a strength, and probably never will be. But defense doesn’t have to be strength for Iowa because of its offensive firepower.
Defense just can’t be a weakness like it was against Gonzaga, although, Gonzaga is ranked No. 1 for a reason.
Gonzaga is an elite team, but the team that pounded Northwestern on Sunday also looked pretty elite.
Iowa has a unique circumstance with Connor McCaffery and Patrick McCaffery both playing for their father, Fran McCaffery.
But it helps that Connor McCaffery is a pass-first guard because his unselfishness sets the tone on offense.
Nobody seems to care who scores on this Iowa team as long as somebody does.
So assuming this team can stay healthy, it has a chance to be special.
Garza is a legend in the post and Bohannon is poised to become the Big Ten’s all-time leader in 3-point field goals.
It just feels different with this Iowa team, at least for now.