IOWA CITY, Ia. — Depth. That word has stuck to Iowa’s basketball team like belly-button defense since the start of the season, when coach Fran McCaffery said he’d go 11 players deep.
Here we are, 25 games into a season that continues Saturday when the 15th-ranked Hawkeyes host No. 16 Wisconsin at 11 a.m. in Carver-Hawkeye Arena. And that depth is going to play a key role for an Iowa team that will play six games in the final 15 days of the regular season.
“Depth is going to help you through a long, grueling season,” McCaffery said Friday.
Iowa is 19-6 overall and 8-4 in the Big Ten Conference, one game back of Michigan and Michigan State in the loss column. Those teams meet Sunday in Ann Arbor. Wisconsin, 21-5 and 8-5, is making an impressive late-season run. After starting 16-0, the Badgers lost five of six. But they’ve won four straight, including Sunday’s 75-62 triumph at Michigan.
Saturday’s game is also pivotal in the race to get one of the top four seeds in the Big Ten Tournament, which would mean a first-round bye. Wisconsin has never finished lower than fourth in the conference standings in the 12 seasons Bo Ryan has been coach.
Iowa, trying to become the third-fastest team to reach 20 victories in school history, hasn’t been in a Big Ten title chase this late in the season since 2006. That team dropped back-to-back late February road games and ended up in a tie for second, one game back of Ohio State.
“That’s been our goal from the beginning of the season,” Iowa’s Zach McCabe said. “One game at a time. We’ve got a big game against Wisconsin, and then a hectic week next week.”
This season’s race to the finish line, a marathon in recent weeks with just two games in 14 days, will quickly turn into a sprint.
“Almost like an NBA road trip,” said Devyn Marble, Iowa’s leading scorer.
Tuesday’s postponed game at Indiana will take place Feb. 27. That will be played two days after a 6 p.m. game at Minnesota. Iowa will fly directly from Minneapolis to Bloomington after Tuesday’s game. A home game with Purdue has been moved from March 1 to March 2, meaning it will be three games in six days instead of five.
“We’ve got to beat Wisconsin first,” McCabe said. “And then we’ll look ahead to that.”
Iowa’s much-ballyhooed depth will be tested from here on out. Iowa’s bench has accounted for 32.4 points a game, third-most nationally. They’ve also accounted for 20.2 rebounds, more than any team in the nation.
Thirty Big Ten players are averaging at least 30 minutes a game in conference play. Marble, the league’s No. 3 scorer, is just 19th on that list at 31.7 minutes a game. That’s less than the 33.1 minutes he averaged as a sophomore.
“It makes you feel good as a player knowing your teammates can come in and step it up,” Marble said. “Or at the very least maintain. Earlier in my career, guys were always wondering what would happen when we came out. I remember playing 40 minutes some games when Bryce Cartwright was hurt. That’s not as fun as some people think. If you have to play a whole game, it can be detrimental to you and your team. Playing 32 minutes a game is good for everybody.”
White is averaging 30.7 minutes a game, which ranks 27th in the Big Ten.
“Depth is always helpful in the sense that you might have foul trouble of something,” White said. “And it will come in handy next week when we play three games in six days. You can play as hard as you can, knowing that you can come out and get a breather and there will be no dropoff when the next guy comes in.”
Iowa’s depth should be back to 100 percent Saturday. Guards Anthony Clemmons (ankle) and Peter Jok (knee) missed the Hawkeyes’ most recent game a week ago at Penn State. McCaffery said both are good to go.
A Big Ten-high 11 players are averaging double figure minutes for Iowa this season. Nine Hawkeyes are averaging at least 10 minutes in Big Ten play, which ties for most in the league.
In theory, McCaffery agreed that depth will be beneficial with all the games stacked up between now and the end of the regular season.
In fact, he knows that Saturday’s Wisconsin game is the only thing his team should be thinking about. He’s preached a one-game-at-a-time approach all season. He’s not about to change that, no matter what lies ahead.
“I don’t see how you’d ever do anything else in this league,” McCaffery said. “If you start looking down the road, you’re just going to get beat. Everybody’s too good.”
Category: Iowa Hawkeyes men's basketball