By John Bohnenkamp
Never question experience.
Fran McCaffery talks about that a lot when he discusses his team.
The Iowa men’s basketball coach often talks about his team’s professionalism, its business-like approach.
It can be a coaching cliche, and yet it fits these Hawkeyes.
They have seven players back with starting experience. The eight returning players this season have logged more than 11,000 minutes.
Been-there-done-that gets you through the crucible of the Big Ten season, and will certainly get you through a season that can be as unpredictable as this one during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The No. 4-ranked Hawkeyes had a 70-55 win over Purdue on Tuesday night at Carver-Hawkeye Arena that was impressive for many reasons.
The Boilermakers have been a major thorn for Iowa in the last few years. They had won four consecutive in the series coming in, five of the last six, and the margin of victory in those wins was 21.2 points.
And here were the Hawkeyes coming off a 99-88 loss to top-ranked Gonzaga on Saturday, a missed opportunity considering the way Iowa’s offense shot in the game.
But the biggest reasons for that defeat were simple — the Hawkeyes couldn’t defend, and they weren’t rebounding.
And on Tuesday night, they were playing a Purdue team that under Matt Painter defends and rebounds as well as anyone.
So of course the Hawkeyes smothered the Boilermakers, holding them to 39 percent shooting and their second lowest point total of the season, and also outrebounding them 37-35, an impressive number considering Purdue’s rebound margin coming in was plus-10.
This is what business-like is all about. This was maturity.
“I think we learned our lesson from Gonzaga,” said junior forward Joe Wieskamp, who had 17 points. “We knew that was an opportunity, and we didn’t take advantage of it. We had a lot of mistakes defensively, in transition. I think we really watched the film, took that criticism to heart, and really focused on ways in which we can improve, realizing we’re a team that can score the ball with anybody in the country.
“But at the end of the day we have to get stops.”
The Hawkeyes can resemble a collection of turnstiles at times on defense. Maybe a step late, or maybe a missed assignment, which is why games in the past have gotten away.
They seized this one, and didn’t let go. They constantly closed down the Boilermakers, who missed seven of their last eight shots.
“It was an impressive win for us, and an impressive effort for us in a lot of areas,” said center Luka Garza, who led the Hawkeyes with 22 points. “It was just a good effort, all around.”
“It was by far our best effort on the glass and defensively,” McCaffery said. “We outrebounded them, which is hard to do. Purdue is always a terrific rebounding team. We had to stay connected, and we had to keep the effort and intensity. The game plan coming in was defense and rebounding, and it was probably our best effort of the year.”
The Boilermakers were pesky, of course. They held Iowa to its lowest point total of the season — the Hawkeyes came into the game leading the nation in scoring at 98.7 points per game.
But like Wieskamp said, the Hawkeyes can just go into a game thinking they’ll outscore someone. Offense sometimes disappears, and when that happens the best teams are the ones who can lock someone down.
It’s what the Hawkeyes saw on the Gonzaga breakdown. They know they missed shots — 4-of-22 in 3-pointers, 14-of-26 in free throws. A lot of points were left in Sioux Falls.
But they also saw a lot of points flying by them for layups, or soaring above them in 3-pointers.
So they squeezed the Boilermakers, and got their first win in a Big Ten opener since the 2015-16 season.
There’s something to be said about institutional memory. The Hawkeyes know what Purdue has done to them in the past.
“Honestly, my first two years, they’ve embarrassed us,” Wieskamp said. “Every time I’ve played them, they’ve outmuscled us. Destroyed us on the glass every game. So this was one where we wanted to come in, send a message. First game in the Big Ten, on our home court, against a good Purdue team.
“So we wanted to send a message.”
In 11,000 minutes, you can learn a lot of lessons.
Garza, Jordan Bohannon and Jack Nunge were all starters on the 2017-18 team that went 14-19 overall, 4-14 in the Big Ten.
“When you add up all of the experience we have, we know how to bounce back from losses,” Garza said. “You learn that over the years as you get older.”
Then Garza talked about the freshman from last season, Joe Toussaint and CJ Fredrick, who had to quickly grow up when their roles increased as the roster options dwindled because of injuries.
“Going through last year, for them, made them veterans, even though they’re sophomores,” Garza said.
And, Garza said, even the freshmen this season are growing. Keegan Murray, who is getting quality minutes off the bench, had seven points in 12 minutes in this game. Redshirt freshman Patrick McCaffery hit his only shot of the game, a 3-pointer with 12:04 left that put Iowa up 58-44.
“Those guys aren’t high school kids,” Garza said. “They’re college players. They have the right attitude.”
“It speaks to their maturity.”
Maturity speaks loudly in the cacophony of a long college basketball season.
The Hawkeyes spoke up on Tuesday.
“Like Luka was talking about, we’ve got a lot of mature guys on this team,” Wieskamp said. “We’ve been through it, we’ve been in this program for multiple years for most guys. So you’re going to really sit down and watch the film, and look at the criticism, think about yourself on the floor and those mistakes, and ways in which you can improve.
“At the end of the day, it comes down to the character we have in our locker room.”
Photo: Iowa’s Luka Garza pulls down a rebound in Tuesday’s 70-55 win over Purdue. (Stephen Mally/hawkeyesports.com)