Hawkeyes ready to start over in the postseason


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Fran McCaffery’s Hawkeyes certainly aren’t coasting to the Big Ten Tournament in the manner they’d prefer. After starting the season 16-5 — and surpassing many of the lofty preseason expectations fans and followers of the program placed upon it — Iowa’s fatigue and at times putrid defense caused a collapse in the latter half of the conference season.

Although Iowa’s problems seem to be strictly on the defensive side of the ball — the Hawks led the Big Ten in scoring, topping the second-highest scoring team (Michigan State) by more than 6 points per game — McCaffery thinks what’s been beating Iowa is much more complicated than that.

“We’re not as in sync as we were, and I’m hopeful that we’ve been able to go back to some of the basic things that we needed to fix,” McCaffery said. “I think when you look at everything in its entirety, you’ve got to say, well, all right, let’s start with the defense, OK. It’s transition; it’s rebounding; it’s on the ball; it’s ball-screen defense; it’s help recovery; it’s being in the gaps. I mean, all of those things.”

Up first for Iowa in the conference tournament is Northwestern, a team the Black and Gold smoked by 26 points twice this season.

Like Iowa, the Wildcats is a bit different from what they were earlier in the season. The biggest difference between the Wildcats Iowa saw earlier in the year and now is the production they have been getting from center Alex Olah.

Starting with the Jan. 9 game between Iowa and Northwestern, Olah failed to score in double figures for 10 games in a row. But in the last six games of the season, the 7-foot center from Romania has averaged 13.8 points and 6.3 rebounds per game. 

“It’s not easy to beat anybody three times in one season, we know that, we understand that,” Iowa assistant coach Kirk Speraw said during Monday’s Big Ten teleconference. “I don’t think it will be a problem with our guys. They’ve done a great job all year long on being mentally focused on the task at hand.”

Even though Northwestern finished one game ahead of Purdue in conference play, many statistics suggest that this is the worst team in the conference. In terms of overall record, the Wildcats had the conference’s worst winning percentage (.419) by a wide margin.

And no word describes Northwestern’s offense more accurately than “atrocious.” This season, Chris Collins’ squad ranked 349th in points, 304th in assists, and 345th in field-goal percentage.

“We have our work cut out for us,” Collins said during the teleconference. “The first time we played [Iowa], we were completely overmatched … We really didn’t give them much resistance. I thought we played much better the second time we played them. Their depth and athleticism and length has been a problem for us.”

If Iowa can win as heavy favorites against Northwestern, it will take on Michigan State on Friday. The Spartans knocked off Iowa twice in 2013-14, and they’ve eliminated Iowa from the Big Ten Tournament each of the past three seasons.

“Any time you have an opportunity to play in an event of this caliber, I think that’s going to make everybody pretty excited,” McCaffery said. “You look at this season in terms of the length of it and the intensity of the journey, and you prepare. And that’s how you get ready to play a team like Northwestern. We prepare.

“That’s exactly what they are doing for us. We played them twice. We’ve seen each other play a million times, because you watch other teams; you’re ready.”

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