This is the longest gap between games on the Iowa men’s basketball team’s four-month-long regular-season schedule.
The Hawkeyes don’t resume play until next Saturday when they face Northern Iowa in Des Moines and don’t resume Big Ten play for over three weeks. So this is a good time to look back and look ahead as we somehow stay in the present.
Would you have taken 7-2 from Iowa knowing it had to play Oregon, either Syracuse or Connecticut, Wisconsin, Michigan State and Iowa State in its first nine games?
Of course, that 7-2 is tempered by the 0-2 Big Ten record the Hawkeyes will own from now until Jan. 3 when they play at Purdue.
The story of the 2018-19 Hawkeyes remains waiting to be written. There are four nonconference games left they should win (I wouldn’t say that in very many years, UNI, but you’re 2-5 against Division I teams), 18 conference games, and whatever the postseason brings.
Predictions are folly. In a four-day stretch last week, the Hawkeyes were road kill at Michigan State and kings of the castle at home against the Cyclones. Both games showed the difficulty of playing your first true road game of the season against a formidable foe in a hostile gym.
If you expected clear improvement from the Iowa team that went 14-19 a season ago, your expectation was reasonable and you’ve already gotten it. The Hawkeyes were 4-6 in their first 10 games last season, including defeats to Louisiana, South Dakota State and a not-great Iowa State club.
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Outside of the shredding it absorbed at Michigan State, Iowa’s defense has been vastly better this season. Whether that holds up between Jan. 3 and the end of the season is an unknown.
For the Hawkeyes to reach the fringe of NCAA Tournament discussion, they’ll have to at least break even in their remaining conference games. That means winning several games that look like toss-ups right now.
The difference in this season’s Hawkeyes is they have two freshman guards who are giving them needed qualities.
Much was expected from blue-chip recruit Joe Wieskamp. There’s a learning curve for every player who goes from having the ball in his hands almost all the time in high school to being a cog in the machine in college. Averaging 10.1 points and 5.3 rebounds through nine games is a nice start to a career, especially on a team that has scorers.
Wieskamp had his teammates’ full confidence from the get-go, and we quickly saw why.
Connor McCaffery, whose first college season was canceled by injury and illness, has been the revelation. McCaffery has usually been on the floor down the stretch in close games. He is averaging 21.3 minutes and leads his team in assists.
He shows little hesitation to attack. That’s one of those qualities his team needed. That he is second on his team in free throw tries behind Tyler Cook says a lot.
Wieskamp and McCaffery, a wing and point guard, have similar builds and length. More importantly, they have confidence. Both truly knew how to play the game before they played a minute for the Hawkeyes.
The recent, surprising return of junior forward Cordell Pemsl can’t be dismissed lightly. If Pemsl can stay healthy enough to contribute similarly to what he did against Iowa State in 16 minutes, that’s big.
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With late November’s news that Pemsl would miss this season because of upcoming knee surgery, Iowa suddenly looked close to lacking enough frontcourt depth for a long season. Then Pemsl felt better and chose to see where he was physically before calling it a season.
This is a player who had a stretch of five straight games scoring in double figures as a freshman, and who has been in the team’s rotation his entire career. He is needed.
One final thing: If UNI upsets the Hawkeyes next Saturday, I reserve the right to immediately reevaluate everything.
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