The road has been unkind to most teams in the Big Ten this year, as anyone who's paid attention over the last few months can attest: home teams have won a stunning 72% of the games in Big Ten play this season. Iowa's performance in Big Ten play so far this season has been a microcosm of the league as a whole: Goliath at home, David on the road. Entering Sunday, Iowa's only league road win had been at Northwestern -- the worst team in the league. Worse, the last three times the Hawkeyes had ventured on the road had produced some of the ugliest losses of Iowa's season to date. The nadir was the evisceration in West Lafayette, but double-digit losses to Maryland and Indiana were rough outings too.
On Sunday, though, Iowa exorcised a few of those road demons and came away with a critical road win over Minnesota, 58-55. So how did Iowa end their streak of road game futility? By flipping the script in several areas that have plagued them in recent road losses.
You probably have to start with the defense. Iowa held the Gophers to 55 points -- and just 0.83 points per possession (PPP) -- in this win. That's night-and-day different than the defense that teams like Maryland, Purdue, and Indiana sliced and diced on their way to point totals over 80 and PPP figures north of 1.00. The 55 points were the lowest total for an Iowa opponent in a road game since Syracuse back in December. The Orange posted a similar PPP figure (0.84) in that game to the 0.83 that the Gophers posted in this game.
More importantly, Iowa's defense stiffened at the biggest moments of the game. Iowa entered the second half down 31-26 and struggled to make up ground on the Gophers for most of the second half; the Minnesota lead hung around 6-8 points for most of the first 10 minutes of the half. Iowa kept chipping away at the lead after that and prevented Minnesota from getting it beyond 2-4 points, but couldn't get over the hump. And after tying the game at 47-all with 7 minutes to play, disaster struck. Minnesota's offense erupted for a quick 8-0 run in 90 seconds thanks to a long jumper from Daniel Oturu and a pair of three-pointers from Gabe Kalscheur and Payton Willis. Minnesota had made just 20% of their 3-point tries prior to those two makes, so if you thought "here we go again...", well, you weren't alone. At that point Iowa had just an 8% chance of winning the game, per KenPom.
But then something clicked for Iowa on the defensive end. That Willis made three with 5:25 to play was the final point Minnesota scored in the game. Minnesota's next six possessions went:
- missed 3
- foul drawn, shot blocked, foul drawn, missed free throw
- missed 3 (desperation heave)
Minnesota had 12 offensive rebounds in the game -- but none in that final 5:25 of play (unless you count recovering the ball after the blocked shot as an offensive rebound, which it kind of was). Iowa's defense has been much maligned, especially in recent weeks, and for understandable reasons. But it stepped up in a big way in this game, particularly in the closing moments and harassed Minnesota into mistakes, denied them decent looks at the basket, and prevented second chance opportunities. Iowa doesn't win this game without that defensive performance in the final five minutes.
Another aspect of the game that's been a problem for Iowa in recent road losses has been bench scoring. Iowa hasn't gotten much from its second unit in those losses, while opponents' back-ups have done a number to the Hawkeyes:
Hawkeye bench points vs. opponents in the last 5 games:— Go Iowa Awesome (@IowaAwesome) February 14, 2020
Not on Sunday, though. Despite playing with an even shorter bench than normal as a result of the ankle injury that left CJ Fredrick in street clothes on Sunday and pushed Ryan Kriener, normally Iowa's sixth man, into the starting lineup, Iowa's back-ups outplayed Minnesota's second string. Iowa's reserves outscored Minnesota's 13-5 and Iowa got some especially big minutes out of Cordell Pemsl and Bakari Evelyn.
Pemsl, returning to action after serving a one-game suspension against Indiana, played 17 minutes and had probably his best game of the year -- certainly his best game of the year against a legitimate opponent. He had six points (on 3/3) shooting, three rebounds, and a block. He had to play bigger minutes than usual with Luka Garza mired in foul trouble and he made the most of those added minutes. He got some critical rebounds and played solid defense, but what was most notable was his offense: he looked much more aggressive than normal and attacked the rim well for some nice baskets. Just a really impressive showing from Pemsl in a game where Iowa needed him to step up and contribute.
Evelyn also came through with a pretty strong performance off the bench. He played 29 minutes, tied for his second-most this season, and did so partly because of foul trouble for Joe Toussaint, partly because of Iowa's diminished lack of guard options with Fredrick sidelined, and partly because he provided some solid defense on the perimeter. The physicality of the game -- and the inconsistency of the officiating -- made it difficult for Toussaint to find a rhythm, but Evelyn seemed to help calm things down. He provided better defense on Minnesota's Marcus Carr (helping to hold him to just 10 points on 3/12 shooting), and he also provided some sparks on the offensive side of the ball. He had 7 points on 2/4 shooting, along with three assists, and two rebounds. He missed an open layup that helped spark Minnesota's 8-0 run late in the game, but he also made a big 3 when Iowa was cutting into Minnesota's lead earlier in the game and, most importantly, he calmly drained two pressure-packed free throws to give Iowa a 2-point lead with 1:15 to play. Those were probably his biggest points to date in an Iowa uniform and given the pressure of the moment -- and the fact that outside of Evelyn, Iowa shot just 6/12 at the free throw line -- we have to give kudos to him for delivering when Iowa needed him.
Obviously the overall offensive star of the show was -- who else? -- Luka Garza, our favorite superstar peacock. Garza finished with a game-high 24 points (his 11th straight game with 20+ points) on 11/21 shooting, as well as 8 rebounds, 2 steals, a block, and an assist. He started the game on fire was absolutely dominant in the paint, making his first five shots, scoring Iowa's first 10 points of the game, and looking like he might be on his way to all-time great single game performance. He slowed down a bit after that, partly due to Minnesota doing a slightly better job of denying him the ball in the post, partly due to Garza missing a few shots that usually go in for him, and partly due to foul trouble. Two first half fouls kept Garza planted on the bench for the final 5:23, his third and fourth fouls of the game kept him out of the mix for around five minutes total in the second half, and he eventually fouled out in the closing seconds -- his first foul-out of the season and just the fourth of his Iowa career.
Despite all that, Garza was a key part of Iowa's surges in the second half. He had two key makes in the run Iowa put together to eventually tie the game at 47-all. And he also came through with some big shots in Iowa's closing surge after going down 55-47. He made a layup with 4:20 to play to cut the Gopher lead to 55-51 and two minutes later he made his one and only three of the game to cut the lead to 55-54. It was also Garza's offensive rebound off a Ryan Kriener missed free throw that allowed Iowa to retain possession and eventually led to Evelyn's two made free throws to win the game. This definitely wasn't Garza's best performance of the season -- and he still finished with 24 and 8 and made a handful of crucial plays down the stretch to help Iowa win. He's just really damn great, you guys.
And since I alluded to it earlier, we should probably talk about the fouls in this game and the officiating in general. It sucked. It was just really bad. When people talk about why they hate the refereeing in this league, this game is what they're talking about. Both teams wound up with around the same number of fouls called on them (16 for Iowa, 17 for Minnesota) and I don't think the officiating was particularly one-sided or unfair... it was just bad and frustratingly inconsistent. What was a foul? What wasn't a foul? It seemed to change on a whim every few possessions -- or sometimes within a possession.
At least half of the fouls called on Garza seemed laughable; on one he was called for a moving screen where the Minnesota player was shoving him across the court. On another he got rang up for faint contact thanks to an Emmy-worthy sell job by a Gopher. Meanwhile, it was usually fucking Thunderdome in the paint and the refs just swallowed their whistles. I was fortunate enough to have seats close to the court for this game and on several plays you could audibly hear an offensive player got hit (the sound of flesh getting slapped is a whole lot different than a ball getting slapped), but no whistle was called. I don't think this particularly favored either team overall -- both teams definitely got aided or victimized by the calls at different points of the game -- but it led to a game that was ugly and choppy for most of the day and that the referees had little control of at several points. Complaining about Big Ten officiating is a tale as old as time but that's because it's been bad, it stays bad, and it only seems to be getting worse. Until the Big Ten can do something to address it, we're just going to get more games like this, and no one wants that.
I want to give a shout-out to Ryan Kriener for his efforts in this game as well. He stepped into the starting lineup with Fredrick out and he had a really strong overall performance. Playing a career-high 34 minutes, Kriener finished with 10 points, 7 rebounds, 4 blocks (!), and two assists. It certainly wasn't his most efficient offensive performance -- his 10 points came on just 4/14 shooting-- but this game was a grind and he gave Iowa gave a lot of good minutes, especially with Garza sitting on the bench as much as he did. Maybe the most remarkable stat was that Kriener was called for just one foul despite playing 34 minutes; he was a foul magnet earlier in his career, but he's definitely improved on that as a veteran. There were a lot of Kriener friends and family in attendance (I sat next to some of them; good folks) since Spirit Lake isn't too far away, so it was cool to see him have a good showing in front of them.
Also: big ups to Connor McCaffery as well. In 39 minutes, he had 6 points (including a key three-pointer), 3 rebounds, and 7 assists -- and zero turnovers. He has the best assist-to-turnover ratio in the nation; when Iowa's offense looks good, a big reason why is often because of a pass he's made or some movement that he's initiated. He doesn't score a lot of points and he'll probably never be a big scoring threat during his Iowa career -- but he still contributes a lot to Iowa's success.
The game was certainly ugly at times, but the result was anything but -- winning on the road this year is always worth celebrating, and winning a game where Iowa was without Fredrick, had Garza mired in foul trouble, and couldn't get much offense out of Joe Wieskamp (just two points) is pretty satisfying. And ripping Minnesota's heart out in front of their braying fans? Well, that's just extra-satisfying. It was also sweet to watch this game from a seat near the action (although Williams Arena's elevated court makes for a slightly off-kilter viewing experience when you're that close to the floor) and to watch it in a cluster of Iowa fans (many of whom where friends and family of the Iowa players and coaches). There's nothing like getting to celebrate a win over a hated rival in their gym while surrounded by Hawkeye fans.
I don't have a ton of juicy gossip or insider intel to reveal from being that close to the action -- we weren't close enough to hear what Fran was saying to the team on the bench or in huddles. I will say that Frank Garza, Papa Peacock himself, seemed like a really great guy, though, and was very friendly with all the Iowa fans there. Fredrick, Jack Nunge, and Patrick McCaffery watched the game in street clothes (I'm told Jordan Bohannon wasn't there because the NCAA places limits on the number of players who can travel, even injured players; NCAA gonna NCAA, I guess). Fredrick was out of a walking boot and was moving without a pronounced limp, although he was moving gingerly. Expecting him back for Ohio State later this week (or even Michigan State a week from Tuesday) might be pushing it, but it did look like he'd have a chance to return to action this season. Considering we feared the worst after the Indiana game on Thursday, that would be pretty good news.
Despite all the ups and downs, the injuries and the drama, Iowa is now 18-8 overall and 9-6 in the Big Ten. Thanks to tiebreakers, that's good enough for 3rd place in the league in the current standings. The bunching in this league is still bananas this year -- Iowa's in 3rd now, but also just two games out of 10th place -- but Iowa's in really good shape overall. This was a win Iowa probably had to have to harbor any realistic chances of earning a Top-4 finish in the league this year -- and it was a win they got. Three of their next four games are at home and while those games won't be easy -- Ohio State has won 5 of their last 6, Penn State is on an 8-game winning streak and has ascended to second place in the Big Ten, and we all remember what Purdue did to Iowa the first time they played this season -- but home court has been really good to the Hawkeyes this season and that's going to give them a very real chance to earn a Top-4 finish.
HATES IOWA ENJOYS WATCHING IOWA BEAT MINNESOTA?
I DO, I DO.
NEXT: Iowa faces Ohio State (17-8, 7-7 B1G) on Thursday, February 20 at 6 PM CT (ESPN).