By John Bohnenkamp
Iowa was the first opponent for new coach Rob Jeter and Western Illinois last season.
The Leathernecks at that time were still getting to know each other — because of the COVID-19 pandemic, there were no summer workouts, and practices were limited before that December 3, 2020 game at an empty Carver-Hawkeye Arena.
The Leathernecks come back for Wednesday’s game, and they have a different look.
“Oh, it’s night and day,” Iowa coach Fran McCaffery said on Tuesday.
Western Illinois is 10-3 overall, one of 47 NCAA Division I teams that have reached double digits in wins this season. It’s the best start for the Leathernecks since the 2012-13 team opened 10-3 on the way to sharing the Summit League championship.
“They’ve done a really good job there,” McCaffery said. “They’ve got a veteran group, they’ve got some transfers, they’ve got some really good players back. They’ve got a group that fits. They share the ball, they play defense. They compete. It’s a talented group.
“There’s a reason why they have 10 wins. It’s hard to have 10 wins at this time of the year, and they’ve got 10 wins.”
Four Leathernecks average in double figures in scoring — forward Will Carius (17.8 ppg) guard Trenton Massner (15.9), guard Colton Sandage (15) and forward Luka Barisic (12.3). Carius ranks eighth in NCAA Division I play with 44 3-pointers. Sandage has made 34, Barisic has made 26, and Massner has 25.
The Leathernecks rank 14th nationally with 135 3-pointers, and 11th with 526 rebounds.
“They’ve got multiple 3-point shooters,” McCaffery said. “When you have that, it makes them tough to guard. Again, you have veteran guys. They’re not big mistake-makers. I haven’t seen any selfishness in any way, even though they have a bunch of guys who can score. Any given game, it might be the guy who’s hot. They move it, they share it, they pound the glass and try to get second-shot opportunities. It’s been impressive to see how this group has come together.”
Carius and Sandage played in last year’s game, while Massner and Barisic, along with reserve George Dixon, are transfers.
The Leathernecks’ three losses this season — on the road against DePaul, Eastern Michigan and Omaha — have been by a combined 14 points. Three of their wins have been by four points or less.
Those numbers, McCaffery said, indicate a team that has learned how to play in close games.
“They’ve won some close games, so they’ve played intelligently,” he said. “They’ve competed. They don’t make a ton of mistakes. In year one, you’ve got some young guys, you’re trying to figure it out, put a system in. They’ve got it straightened out in short order.”
Iowa (9-3) hasn’t played since last Tuesday, a 93-62 win over Southeastern Louisiana.
The Hawkeyes have had just two games since a December 9 loss at Iowa State. That break, McCaffery said, has been helpful in getting his players healthy and getting some rest.
“We had a lot of nagging stuff going on,” McCaffery said. “Nothing to really preclude anybody from playing.
“Now it’s just pretty much singular focus the rest of the way. So I think, from that standpoint, we got healthy, got a chance to have a little bit of family time. And now we focus on this game (against Western Illinois), and the rest of the Big Ten schedule. Essentially, you don’t lift your head up until April.”
It’s the last nonconference game for both teams.
McCaffery knows the challenge against the Leathernecks will be different than last season.
“It’s a team that competes, one that if you’re going to beat them you have to play well,” he said.
Photo: Iowa’s Joe Toussaint drives to the basket in last year’s win over Western Illinois. (Brian Ray/hawkeyesports.com)