Iowa’s quest to go where no Hawkeye men’s basketball team has gone since 2006 is off to a good start with the Hawkeyes 11-2 and nationally ranked.
But now comes the tough part: Big Ten Conference play starts Tuesday.
No. 22 Iowa will face 8-4 Nebraska at 6 p.m. Tuesday at Carver-Hawkeye Arena in the conference opener for both teams.
A loss wouldn’t make or break Iowa’s 18-game conference schedule, but it would create an early hole to dig out before facing Big Ten power Wisconsin on Sunday in Madison, Wis.
“I think we all look at it the same way, you really have to protect your home court,” Iowa coach Fran McCaffery said Monday during a teleconference. “At the same time, everybody looks at opportunities on the road. Can we go get a road win? Are we tough enough? Can we deal with the crowd?
“When you get to the end, the ones that were able to do that are the ones that are still standing and playing in March.”
Iowa finished 9-9 in conference play last season, but that wasn’t enough to make the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2006. The combination of playing a weak non-conference slate and finishing 0-7 against ranked opponents ultimately cost the Hawkeyes an NCAA Tournament bid.
They instead settled for a spot in the National Invitation Tournament, where Iowa lost to Baylor in the championship game.
Nebraska was among seven Big Ten teams that defeated Iowa last season in games that were decided by four or fewer points.
McCaffery was asked Monday what things his team needs to improve on the most at this stage of the season.
“I think you always want to look at consistency defensively because we know how talented teams are that are coming up,” McCaffery said. “You can get by with some things defensively against some of the teams we’ve played, but not in the conference. Then, execution late game because you’re anticipating being involved in a lot of close games. That’s defense, offense, free throws, and having everybody on the same page.”
Iowa’s depth is arguably its biggest strength with McCaffery using an 11-man rotation that now includes junior shooting guard Josh Oglesby, who missed the first 12 games because of a broken foot.
“It’s crucial because we have had guys that were sick,” McCaffery said of Iowa’s depth. “Nobody really knew that Aaron White was sick before our last game, but he played anyway. We’ve had guys with minor injuries and of course Josh with the broken foot. Those things are going to continue. You hope they don’t, but somebody is going to tweak their ankle or have a stomach virus and that takes its toll if you are only seven or eight deep, but if you’re 11 deep that helps you especially if you’re talking about a quick turnaround. There’s a lot of positives to having good depth.”
The Hawkeye have played only once since Dec. 14 and faced little resistance in that game, pounding Arkansas-Pine Bluff 86-61 on Dec. 22 at Carver-Hawkeye Arena. Iowa’s two losses both came in overtime against No. 8 Villanova 88-83 at a neutral site in the Bahamas and against No. 13 Iowa State 85-82 in Ames.
“We’ve definitely had our share fair of tests throughout the non-conference (schedule), so I think we’re ready,” Iowa senior guard Devyn Marble said. “I definitely think the team is ready.”
Nebraska is coming off a 74-59 loss at Cincinnati this past Saturday. The Cornhuskers will look to snap an 18-game losing streak to ranked opponents on the road that dates back to 2008. Nebraska is winless in 10 games against ranked opponents under second-year head coach Tim Miles and has won just twice in 12 trips to Iowa City.
Guard Ray Gallegos is the only scholarship senior on Nebraska’s current roster. Six of Nebraska’s 10 players in the rotation are in their first year in the program.
“They’re a lot different,” McCaffery said. “They’ve got a lot of new guys. I like their team. Obviously from last year, Gallegos is a guy that made seven threes against us, so he’s going to get your full attention and he’s an upperclassman.
“When you look at their top eight guys, five of them are new, but they’ve got size, talent, and shooting. They’ve got a lot of weapons.”
Nebraska at Iowa
When: 6 p.m. today.
Where: Carver-Hawkeye Arena in Iowa City.
TV/radio: BTN; 800 KXIC-AM.
Reach Pat Harty at 339-7370 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Category: Iowa Hawkeyes men's basketball