February, definitely not to be confused with Frannuary.
Before launching into my latest screed, let me acknowledge how rugged this year’s Big Ten is. Checking the latest edition of Bracket Matrix, there are six Big Ten teams—Michigan, Ohio State, Illinois, Iowa, Wisconsin, and Purdue—seeded fifth or better. Other than Nebrasketball (insert a cackling Shaq saying, “That’s barbecue chicken”), every B1G team falls somewhere between tricky to downright perilous. Our Hawkeyes, as offensively gifted as they are, were always going to lose a game (or three) to a flamethrowing opponent. Iowa’s loss in Champaign? Understandable. Taking an “L” to Ohio State? Disappointing but, look, the B1G eats its own. The latest nutpunch versus the Hoosiers? Well, it’s time for a fireside chat.
On its own, the loss in Bloomington isn’t that damning. IU is a solid enough squad (#26 in Ken Pom), featuring a versatile four in Trayce Jackson-Davis and legitimate defensive chops. But it is how the Hawkeyes, through a cavalcade of self-inflicted errors, botched yet another winnable game. And now we are on the exurbs of the BIG race, freefalling into yet another Fran special (the 7-10 NCAA matchup). Those are my muffled tears you hear.
Singling out Fran, the IU game deserves dishonorable mention. The Hawkeyes were curb stomping the Hoosiers when Fran sat the Peacock for the final 12:30 of the first half after Garza picked up his second foul. In the Franitentary (h/t @Adam_Jacobi), there is no early release. You will do your time in America’s toughest prison; Warden Fran looks at your plea for mercy (or first half playing time) with an icy glare and condescension.
But here’s the thing: despite his snarky protestations to the contrary, Franny’s ironclad rule needs a little situational flexibility. In the ideal world, sure, Garza would sit until the second half (in the ideal world, Iowa would also be 10-2 in the B1G but I digress). But the Sunday circumstances—a skidding Iowa desperately trying to preserve its fading Big Ten title hopes—demanded a different approach. When Indiana trimmed Iowa’s 13-point lead to five with three minutes left in the first half, that would have been a logical time to reinsert the big man. Iowa had gamely hung on for nine plus minutes of game time without Garza; Weezy was essentially captaining the Hawkeye Titanic with Luka, Bohannon, and CMac all in two foul lock-up (not to mention a sidelined Fredrick). Despite the Hoosiers closing the half on a 9-2 spurt, Luka and company continued serving their Fran-imposed sentence. And once on the verge of blowing out the Hoosiers (you could almost hear the “Fire Archie” chants), the Hawkeyes were now locked into a B1G cage fight against IU.
Fran needs to be more strategic—dare I say smarter—with his “Lock Him Up” approach. Before placing Garza in the Hawkeye version of Gitmo, I wish he would have asked himself these questions: Is the other team going on a game changing run? Is this a must-win game for our fledgling title hopes? And, finally, can I trust the guy with two fouls? As for the latter question, if he can’t trust his National Player of the Year candidate, well, we have a problem, Iowa City. A student of the game (just check out his legendary DVD collection), Luka understands situational basketball. He rarely, if ever, picks up a cringe-inducing foul (unlike, say, Tyler Cook’s choose-your-own-adventure drives to the rim). In fact, the Peacock has fouled out a grand total of zero times this year. And despite facing a bevy of Big Ten heavyweights last year, he was disqualified just once. As this tweet rightly points out, Fran, in essence, fouled Luka out of the IU game despite the big fella finishing with—insert profanity of your choice—two fouls.
While I have harped on the (batshit) insanity underlying Fran’s two foul lock-up, there have been other, ahem, curious decisions. Acknowledging that I am an unabashed Joe T groupie, how does he carve out a measly four minutes against IU—including zero in the second half? Touissant is the team’s most dynamic playmaker; on a squad with an army of three point shooters, he is the sole guard with any off the ball verve. Even more importantly for this team, he is a dogged defender, leading the Hawkeyes in steal percentage and generally neutralizing other guards. But with his ever-fluctuating playing time (I mean, freshman Tony Perkins played 15 minutes to Joe T’s four at IU?!), you wonder if he insulted Fran’s wife or something. How else do you explain his four-minute cameo against the Hoosiers—particularly after dropping 10 points and six dimes in 21 minutes against Sparty earlier in the week?
This was supposed to be the year when Iowa would finally assume its rightful place atop the Big Ten (after, sigh, 40 years wandering in the B1G desert). And while there have been extenuating circumstances—namely CJ Fredrick’s injury, the IU game crystallized the Hawkeyes’ stubborn flaws: questionable in-game decisions, head-scratching rotations, and crunch time difficulties. The latest February fade prompts a sobering question: Is another mid-tier BIG finish this team’s—strike that, this program’s—fait accompli?