Iowa basketball tries to get back on track against Clemson


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Tonight brings the Hawkeye men's basketball team an opportunity for a major victory after it recently stumbled to back-to-back disappointing losses. The same can be said for Clemson, the squad Iowa will host as a part of the 13th-annual Big Ten/ACC Challenge.

Iowa (4-2) was blown out by Creighton, 82-59, Nov. 20 in Des Moines. But the Bluejays — who are receiving votes in the AP poll — are more formidable than the Campbell squad that beat the Hawkeyes, 77-61, in Carver-Hawkeye Arena two days later.

Similarly, Clemson (3-2) dropped a 72-69 home contest to College of Charleston on Nov. 19. The Tigers' 60-59 loss against Coastal Carolina on Nov. 22 — by virtue of a buzzer-beating tip-in — may have been even more debilitating.

The teams will use tonight's meeting (the third in the history of the programs) to try to stabilize shaky early season paths. Iowa seeks its first win in the Challenge since beating North Carolina State in 2005. The Hawkeyes' all-time Challenge record worsened to 2-8 last year when Wake Forest's last-second 3-pointer dealt Iowa a 76-73 defeat.

"I'm sure they're coming in here with that same attitude," said senior guard Matt Gatens, whose 16.8 points per game lead Iowa and is the eighth-best average in the Big Ten. "We're trying to win every game, but we're kind of in similar situations — a couple of tough losses. It could be a great win to get us back on track against a national team like Clemson."

Point guard Bryce Cartwright said Iowa "just came out flat" in its losses to Creighton and Campbell. The Hawkeyes' 82-72 win against Indiana/Purdue-Fort Wayne on Nov. 26 shook the two-game losing streak but wasn't too impressive. Indiana/Purdue out-rebounded Iowa, 30-26, Iowa let the Mastodons shoot 52.3 percent from the floor, and the Hawkeyes couldn't keep Frank Gaines from scoring a game-high 25 points on 10-of-14 shooting.

Even after the win, coach Fran McCaffery said there was "no question" that his team's confidence dipped following the two-straight losses.

"I just don't know that we're at the point yet as a group that we can say, 'OK, we're going to show up and drill whoever's on our screen,' " McCaffery said on Monday. "We're not there yet … But we've got really good teams left on our schedule, and a lot of them are away from [Carver-Hawkeye Arena]. So we just have to legitimately continue to try to get better individually."

Iowa will have to contend with another adept scorer like Gaines in Clemson's Andre Young (14.4 points per game). The Hawkeyes' glaring rebounding deficiencies will also be tested. Their plus-1.5 rebounding margin average is the Big Ten's second-worst; the Tigers boast a plus-5.2 rebounding advantage.

Two of Clemson's top three rebounders also regularly score in double-digits. The 6-9, 225-pound Milton Jennings scores 12.4 points to go along with 6.6 rebounds, and the 6-8, 245-pound Devin Booker is averaging 10.6 and 5.8.

McCaffery lauded the versatility of both players.

"These two guys can really play," he said. "… They have a complete skill set. They can put it on the deck. They can shoot 3s. They can post up. They can finish with either hand, and they're phenomenally athletic."

Knocking off the Tigers would almost certainly boost the Hawkeyes' confidence, but more importantly, it could play a role in Iowa's bid for the postseason come March. Clemson has appeared in four-straight NCAA Tournaments.

Cartwright said the game has "major implications," which Gatens echoed.

"This could be a quality win for us. You have to see the whole picture," Gatens said. "… Clemson's a team that's been in the tournament. That's what we want to get to as a team, going to the tournament every year. It'll be a great test for us and something we need to be ready for."

Follow DI men's basketball reporter Jordan Garretson on Twitter.

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