By John Bohnenkamp
Iowa is 1-1 in the Big Ten because the Hawkeyes played good defense in one game and bad defense in the next.
In a conference where nothing will be easy again this season, that can’t keep happening if they want to contend for a league title.
“The biggest key is (doing it) consistently,” Iowa forward Joe Wieskamp said on Monday.
The Hawkeyes face Northwestern, one of the best shooting teams in the conference, in Tuesday’s 8 p.m. game at Carver-Hawkeye Arena, a place where they have been much better defensively this season.
Granted, Iowa (7-2 overall, 1-1 Big Ten) has only played two games away from home this season, but both were losses and both were to teams who were able to feast on the Hawkeyes’ defensive mistakes.
Gonzaga and Minnesota combined to 48.2 percent from the field, 43.5 percent in 3-pointers, while combining to score 201 points.
“Our defense wasn’t great against Gonzaga,” Iowa coach Fran McCaffery said. “We scored 88 but we gave up 99, so we needed to be better in that game against the No. 1 team. We were really good at times. We forced 18 turnovers against Gonzaga. But we weren’t consistently good, and the same thing against Minnesota.”
Iowa’s defense has been better at home. Opponents have shot 39 percent against the Hawkeyes overall, 30.4 percent in 3-pointers.
“We’ve done a good job of locking in on our home court,” Wieskamp said. “But obviously in our two losses away from home, we haven’t locked into the game plan. I think early on in games, maybe they make a run or we do some uncharacteristic things.
“We just continue to make mistakes. We can’t let one mistake become two. We’ve got to lock in and really correct those mistakes early on in games so it’s not affecting us in late-game situations. We’ve just got to figure that out on the road and stay locked into the game plan, even when things aren’t going our way.”
What’s frustrating for the Hawkeyes is they have shown the capability of playing good defense this season against quality opponents. Iowa held North Carolina to just six 3-pointers in a 93-80 win, and in a 70-55 win over Purdue the Boilermakers shot 39.7 percent from the field, 32 percent in 3-pointers.
“I think it comes down to locking into what they’re doing,” Iowa coach Fran McCaffery said. “Every team does different stuff, and I think (the Hawkeyes have to be) consistently locked in like we were against Purdue, Purdue runs a lot of really good stuff offensively, they execute well. Our press was good. Half court defense was good. Activity was good. Execution was good.
“Against Minnesota it was good at times, it was really bad at times. And we kind of relied on our offensive ability to go outscore them, and didn’t get the job done there.”
McCaffery agreed that consistency is the key.
“I think our performance against Purdue was as good as we’ve had in a long time,” he said. “So we have proven we can do it. We’ve got to now do it consistently.
“Just being more active as a whole would be the big thing, in my opinion,” said guard Connor McCaffery.
Northwestern (6-1, 3-0) is on a four-game winning streak. The Wildcats are third in the conference in scoring offense (85.3), fourth in field-goal percentage (.486) and second in 3-point percentage (.422).
“They’re playing like they have something to prove,” Wieskamp said. “They have a lot of guys playing well right now, shooting the ball really well. You can just tell that they’re connected.”
The Hawkeyes have to make sure they’re connected, especially this week. They play at Rutgers on Saturday, a team with similar shooting numbers to Northwester.
“We know there are going to be a lot of tight games the rest of the Big Ten season,” Wieskamp said. “We’ve got to learn from these mistakes and really correct those as we move forward.
“It’s going to be a long season, so there are going to be a lot of opportunities for us to win tight games.”
Former Iowa player Nicholas Baer has returned to the Hawkeyes as a graduate student manager.
Baer was with the Hawkeyes from 2015-19. He took a redshirt year in his first season.
Baer, who is working toward completing his master’s degree in sports and recreation management, led the Hawkeyes in blocked shots in 2017 and 2019. He played in the NBA’s G League last season.
“Nicholas is a guy that we love,” Fran McCaffery said. “He had a desire to finish his graduate degree. As you know, he played in his fifth year, so he began his graduate degree in his last year playing for us.
“So he expressed a desire to finish, so we’ve added him as a graduate assistant, and we’re thrilled to have him as part of program. There is no better representative of everything we stand for than Nicholas Baer.”
Photo: Purdue’s Eric Hunter Jr. is pressured by Iowa’s Jordan Bohannon. (Stephen Mally/hawkeyesports.com)