This week was a major prove-it week for Iowa men's basketball. They entered the week 17-7 overall and 11-6 in Big Ten play and on a three-game winning streak but without a signature win on the season. This week's schedule offered up opportunity aplenty on that front in the form of back-to-back road games against #3 Michigan and #4 Ohio State. Iowa's first attempt to secure a big-time victory didn't pan out as a solid first half gave way to a dismal second half en route to an easy Michigan victory. Today, in their second attempt this week to secure a Top-5 win, was a much different story. Iowa played one of their best games of the season, especially on the defensive end of the court, and cruised to a 73-57 road win over #4 Ohio State. Signature victory: secured.
Ohio State made the first shot of the game to go up 2-0 -- and that was the only lead they would have all day. Luka Garza answered on the other end to tie the game at 2-2 and a few plays later Joe Wieskamp made a three to put Iowa up 5-2. Not only did Iowa never trail after that point, the game was never even tied. Iowa used a 12-3 lead to jump out to a 22-13 lead midway through the half and kept that lead around 7-10 points for the remainder of the half, until a 10-3 run heading into halftime gave Iowa a 42-28 advantage. There was a lot to like about that first half for Iowa, with both Garza and Wieskamp shooting the ball well and the defense stymieing the Buckeyes for long stretches. The only questions was whether Iowa could maintain that form over the second 20 minutes.
The answer to that question was ultimately "yes," though not without a little drama. The Buckeyes, mostly ice cold from the floor all game, heated up out of halftime and went on a 14-3 surge to cut Iowa's lead to two at 44-42 in just three minutes of game action. This was starting to look like a script that Iowa fans had seen play out far too many times in the past. But then... it didn't. Iowa went on a 7-0 run while holding Ohio State scoreless over the next three minutes of the game to extend their lead back out to nine. OSU did cut the lead back down to four after a Justin Ahrens 3 with 13 minutes to play, but they got no closer. C.J. Fredrick answered Ahrens' made 3 with a triple of his own and that was really the story of the second half for the Buckeyes. They couldn't get much going and when they did Iowa had a response ready. When Joe Wieskamp drained a three to push Iowa's lead to 13 with eight minutes to play, things felt good; when Jordan Bohannon hit another three with just over two minutes to play to extend the lead to 14, it felt like a dagger.
This ended up a far different game than the first Iowa-OSU encounter in Iowa City a few weeks ago; that was an all-offense sprint in which both teams scored 80+ and shot well (48% for OSU, 44% for Iowa), especially from 3-point range (both teams went 14/32 from behind the arc in that game). Today was a bit more of a slog. That style of game doesn't often favor Iowa, but it did today, thanks to some poor shooting from Ohio State (and some energetic defense from Iowa) and big performances from Iowa's best players.
Two keys to Iowa's performance today: turnovers and rebounding. Iowa turned the ball over just five times while dishing out 19 assists on 29 made field goals. Iowa's ball movement on offense today was very strong and Iowa's guards (especially Bohannon and Joe Toussaint) made several crisp passes to set up teammates for easy buckets. Ohio State, meanwhile, coughed the ball up 13 times (leading to 15 Iowa points) and had just eight assists. Their offense had none of the flow that it had in the first game between these teams. And on the glass Iowa was also effective. They narrowly outrebounded Ohio State overall (34 to 32), but crucially they held the Buckeyes to just two offensive boards (and three second chance points). In Iowa City, OSU had 11 offensive rebounds and converted those extra opportunities into 12 second chance points.
The second half of the Michigan loss aside, Iowa has generally much better defense over the last 5-6 games and that was again on display today. 57 points was a season-low for Ohio State, as was the 0.86 points per possession they averaged in this game. To be sure, some of that was just a matter of some uncharacteristically missed open looks. But Iowa's defense really does deserve a good amount of credit for their performance today -- they forced Ohio State into bad looks or tough shots frequently and forced them to use up much of the shot clock on multiple possessions. Schematically they played more man-to-man than they had been doing earlier in the season and it seemed to work very well (especially after some zone defensive looks at the start of the second half contributed to Ohio State's comeback effort).
But while the schemes certainly had an impact, the most notable thing about Iowa's defense today seemed to be the energy and intensity displayed by the Hawkeyes on that end of the court. This looked like a team that had a chip on its shoulder, about the way the Michigan game ended, about their struggles in elite matchups this season, and about their defensive reputation as a whole. They looked like a team with something to prove -- and they did it. This team showed that it can play stout defense, for lengthy stretches, even against a very good offensive team like Ohio State. They can hustle and swarm and harass opponents. Iowa's moved all the way up to 59th nationally in defensive efficiency after Sunday's game, which is heady territory for this particular collection of Hawkeyes. Again, Iowa has been playing better defense over the last 2-3 weeks of the season, which is a very good sign heading into March -- now they just need to keep it going.
I don't think it's a coincidence that one of Iowa's best defensive performances of the season came with Joe Toussaint playing sizable minutes, either. Toussaint played 14 minutes today, the most he's played in a Big Ten game since logging 21 against Michigan State at the start of the month and the fourth most minutes he's played in Big Ten action this season. It's not exactly breaking news that Toussaint is Iowa's best perimeter defender and a great source of disruptive energy. One of the things that's limited his minutes at times this year has been shortcomings on offense and untimely turnovers; neither of those things were a problem today, as he had just three points but dished out a game-high 7 assists, while contributing a +12 rating. Toussaint's distribution was absolutely on point today, with some inch-perfect deliveries to the likes of Patrick McCaffery and Keegan Murray. Murray was another source of excellent production for Iowa off the bench today, with his standard stat-sheet stuffing performance: 8 points (4/8 shooting), 5 rebounds, 2 steals, and one block. In fact, Toussaint, Murray, and Patrick McCaffery (4 points, 2 assists) were the only Iowa reserves to play today, as Fran went with a short rotation that was highly effective.
A short bench puts a lot of pressure on the starters to produce but that was not an issue for Iowa's big guns today. Luka Garza started hot and stayed productive throughout the game, finishing with a game-high 24 points (10/16 FG, including 2/3 3FG) to go with 11 rebounds, including eight defensive boards. Garza was very good at limiting OSU to one-and-done offensive possessions. Joe Wieskamp bounced back from a few quiet games with a strong performance of his own, scoring 19 points (on 7/13 shooting, 5/9 from 3-point range) and grabbing six rebounds, two assists, and a steal. He was the perfect complement to Garza today. Fredrick had a quiet game overall (5 points, 2 rebounds), but he helped Iowa on the defensive end and his presence helped the spacing on offense. And Jordan Bohannon finished with eight points on 3/8 shooting (2/5 from deep), four rebounds, and five assists. Oh, and he became Iowa's all-time leader in assists, too (more on that in another post). Not too shabby.
This was just a strong all-around performance for Iowa, against one of the toughest teams on their schedule, and at a time when they badly needed it. This was the signature Iowa win hadn't been able to grab all season. This was the big late-season win to establish their credentials as a good team playing well when it matters the most. This was just a big damn win. And, boy, was it satisfying. The Big Dance is still a few weeks away... but that doesn't mean we can't break out our dancing shoes a little bit early.
GO IOWA AWESOME