I Can See Clearly Now That The Doubt Is Gone

By RossWB on January 28, 2020 at 8:19 pm
go hawks go
© Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports
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I'm not going to lie: I doubted this Iowa team. In fact, I've doubted them a lot

I doubted them before the season even began; how could they replace Tyler Cook and Nicholas Baer and Isaiah Moss? Would Jordan Bohannon even be able to play? 

I doubted them after they got absolutely incinerated in the first half against DePaul... at home

I doubted them when Michigan dusted them for 103 points and had fear of the bad old Iowa defense of the last few seasons rearing its ugly head again. 

I doubted them after the Iowa State game -- an emphatic Iowa win, no less -- when it was announced that Jordan Bohannon would have to miss the rest of the season

And, finally, I doubted them a few weeks ago, when they couldn't buy a shot and lost on the road to a lousy Nebraska team. 

You know what? 

I don't want to doubt this Iowa team anymore. I don't think I can doubt this Iowa team anymore.

Even before this recent five-game winning streak, it was starting to become clear that this is a different Iowa team, one capable of special things -- and avoiding some of the pitfalls that have dogged past Hawkeye squads. There was the solid win over a good Texas Tech team in Las Vegas, followed by a pretty good overall performance (or at least a good half) against what we know now is a very good San Diego State team. There was the win over Syracuse on the road, followed by a win over Iowa State in Ames a little over a week later. These aren't vintage Cuse or ISU teams, sure, but neither the Carrier Dome nor Hilton Coliseum are particularly easy places to play, but Iowa still went in and got the job done. 

Obviously, things have only managed to get more impressive for this team since the calendar flipped to Big Ten play -- and they've managed to keep winning without Bohannon in the lineup. The 2020 portion of league play got off to a rocky start, between a narrow loss to a good Penn State team in a raucous Philadelphia environment and the aforementioned disasterpiece of a game in Lincoln. But Iowa hasn't tasted defeat since then, a streak that includes wins over three teams who were ranked at the time. Iowa blasted Maryland at home to get the win streak rolling, then rode a monster Luka Garza performance to a road win over Northwestern. Since then they've picked up thrilling home wins over Michigan and Rutgers and staged a still-kind-of-hard-to-believe comeback against Wisconsin last night. 

There's no doubt that some favorable scheduling has contributed to this recent winning streak -- four of their five games in this streak were at home, where Iowa has played pretty brilliantly all year (minus the DePaul debacle). The one road game was against Northwestern, possibly the league's worst team this year. This was a stretch of the schedule that was tailor-made for Iowa to take advantage. But they still had to go out and actually do it and they did just that, overcoming difficulties that we've seen fell Iowa teams in the past. Iowa had to mount second half comebacks against Michigan and Wisconsin -- erasing a 12-point deficit with just seven minutes to go in the case of the latter game -- and they had to survive after Rutgers mounted a furious comeback effort of their own. Done, done, and done. 

This Iowa team just keeps answering the challenge. They have a team that, simply put, seems to make sense, with pieces that complement each other well. Garza has developed into an unstoppable force on offense; between his dizzying array of low-post moves and ability to stretch the floor and hit longer jumpers (and 3s), he's become all but impossible to defend one-on-one. His presence creates plenty of opportunities for the rest of Iowa's offense, and so long as they have both Wieskamp and Fredrick available, they have some pretty potent outside shooting to use to hurt teams that want to double or triple-team Garza. McCaffery doesn't score much, but he provides the rebounds, screens, and passing to help keep the offense flowing and in rhythm. And Joe Toussaint provides a quickness and ability to get to the rim that Iowa hasn't had in a long time. It was necessitated by the season-ending injury to Jack Nunge and the general lack of bigs on this Iowa roster, but the switch to more of a four-out look on offense, with four guards orbiting Garza has worked brilliantly. Iowa isn't getting a lot of scoring off the bench -- Ryan Kriener leads the second unit with 7.8 ppg and Iowa's other two notable reserves, Bakari Evelyn and Cordell Pemsl, are averaging a combined 4.5 ppg -- so they're certainly reliant on the starters to keep producing. 

I certainly don't expect this winning streak to continue indefinitely -- Iowa will certainly lose before the season's out. They'll likely lose several games before the season comes to a conclusion. Hell, there's a very good chance that they'll lose on Thursday, on the road against a very tough Maryland team that's unbeaten at home this season. (KenPom currently projects a four-point Terps win and gives Iowa a 34% chance of winning.) 

Even if they get by Maryland, that game is the start of a stretch in which 1) Iowa plays six games in a little over two weeks (18 days) and 2) four of those six games are on the road, mostly at venues where Iowa has found little joy in recent years (College Park, West Lafayette, and Minneapolis). (Bloomington is the only road venue in that stretch where Iowa has had more than a little recent success.)  That stretch is going to test the quality of this team (and their depth) significantly. Iowa's finishing stretch will also be daunting, with road games at Michigan State and Illinois sandwiched around home games against Ohio State, Penn State, and Purdue. 

The fear about another February Fade isn't going to dissipate until Iowa gets through February without one of those soul-crushing four- or five-game losing skids that we've seen so often. And that's understandable to a degree; Iowa's had a stretch like that in three of the last five seasons, including each of the last two. But the failures of those teams don't portend doom for this team. Some of the pieces are the same, sure, but even those "same pieces" aren't playing like they were in those seasons.

Wieskamp has improved despite taking on an added workload this season and Garza has jumped several levels and become a legit destroyer of worlds. Fredrick has emerged as a dependable (and deadly) third option for Iowa's offense, while providing solid defense as well. Kriener has been mostly excellent off the bench over the last six weeks, providing sizzling shooting and solid rebounding. As noted, McCaffery has been a strong rebounder and passer and helped Iowa's offensive movement. Joe Toussaint has often provided a spark with his quickness and ability to attack the basket, and on nights when he's been a little too wild, Bakari Evelyn has been able to provide some solid minutes for Iowa. 

The other thing Toussaint, Fredrick, and Garza have brought to this Iowa team is a clear swagger. They're confident and they're not afraid to show it. That confidence has been instrument in helping Iowa get over the hump in their recent comeback efforts (and in preventing a total collapse against Rutgers), which feels like a noticeable change from past Iowa teams. We've seen plenty of games in recent years where things went sideways and Iowa wasn't able to pull out of that tailspin; those performances led to lost games and a single lost game often snowballed into a devastating losing streak. This Iowa team seems capable of pulling out of those downward spirals, both within games and within the season as a whole; Iowa's only lost back-to-back games once this year, against Penn State and Nebraska, despite playing the 14th toughest schedule so far (per KenPom). Notably, CJ Fredrick missed half the Penn State game and all of the Nebraska game. (Health is the one thing that seems like it could really derail Iowa's season.)

If you're still skeptical about this Iowa team, I get it. If the scars of those February fades are still a little too raw, I understand. We'll certainly know a lot more about the ceiling of this Iowa team after this next, road game-heavy stretch of games. But this Iowa team sure feels different. And it sure is exciting to watch them shatter expectations and win over doubters game by game, week by week, and month by month. And it's damn fun to watch. I don't know exactly how the rest of the season is going to play out, but I'm definitely going to stop worrying about the sky falling on this team and enjoy the ride. 

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