Mid-December Break Will Help Hawkeyes Get Ready For What’s Coming

By JOHN BOHNENKAMP

Iowa plays just two games in the next 16 days before getting back into Big Ten play at Nebraska on December 29.

But after Sunday’s 78-75 overtime loss to open the conference season, coach Fran McCaffery wasn’t thinking long-term.

“Well, all I’m worried about is Southeast Missouri (State, the Hawkeyes’ opponent on Saturday),” McCaffery said. “I’m not thinking about whatever happens past that. We’ll break this game down, learn from it, get ready for the next one, get our guys ready for that. And we’ll go from there and then we’ve got Eastern Illinois (on December 21) after that. Give them a little break (for Christmas), and then we’ll resume.”

The Hawkeyes are 7-3 overall heading into the traditional off week for finals, but there are plenty of issues they’ll have time to fix over the upcoming stretch.

Among them:

Get Kris Murray healthy. Murray, Iowa’s leading scorer (19.4 points per game) and rebounder (10.1 per game) has missed the last two games with what has been described as a lower leg injury. Murray was wearing a boot on his left foot and walking with the aid of crutches before Sunday’s game, and McCaffery isn’t sure of his timetable to return.

Iowa played well in his absence in Thursday’s 75-56 win over Iowa State, but the Hawkeyes struggled to stop the Badgers inside in Sunday’s loss. Wisconsin had 52 points in the paint and shot 62.8 percent in 2-point shots on a night when they could have used the height and length of the 6-foot-8 Murray.

The goal is to get Murray as healthy as possible, because such injuries can linger throughout a season. There shouldn’t be a rush to get him back, so the Hawkeyes should be prepared to go without him heading into the beginning of the rest of the conference schedule.

Get Payton Sandfort going. Sandfort came into the season considered as one of the Hawkeyes’ best 3-point shooters, but he has struggled from behind the arc, making just 9-of-44 threes (20.5 percent).

Sandfort was 6-of-15 from behind the arc and 12-of-21 shooting overall in Iowa’s first two games. But he’s shot 14-of-55 overall (25.5 percent) since then.

McCaffery hasn’t lost confidence in Sandfort.

“We’re going to keep playing him, we’re going to keep going to him,” McCaffery said. “I told him, ‘Look, I love you. You’re a terrific player. You affect the game in so many ways. You’re putting way too much pressure on yourself to make jump shots. Just go out there and make plays and be a really good basketball player. That’s what you are.’ The shots will come. And I think (he’ll have) one bust-out game.”

Keep incorporating freshmen Dasonte Bowen and Josh Dix into the rotation. Bowen has played in all 10 games and Dix has played in eight, and McCaffery said he wants to use them more.

Bowen started Sunday’s game in the place of Ahron Ulis, who was unavailable. He had two points, four assists and four rebounds in 20 minutes.

“I thought he was solid,” McCaffery said. “He made a couple of mistakes. He tried to get us into our stuff. He tried to guard their offense, which is not easy with all of the back-picks and the cuts — straight cuts and shuffle cuts.”

Bowen was just 1-of-3 shooting, missing his only 3-point attempt. 

“I want him to be aggressive offensively, as he’s a guy who can score,” McCaffery said. “He pulled up for a three — if one of those goes in, maybe he’s even a little more aggressive. But he’s going to be terrific.”

Look for different combinations. The absence of Murray and Ulis from Sunday’s game forced McCaffery to use walk-on guard Carter Kingsbury, who made his lone 3-point attempt and added an assist and rebound in 10 minutes.

McCaffery hasn’t been afraid to use center Josh Ogundele in certain situations — he played three minutes in the win over Iowa State — and he’ll be needed against some bigger, physical Big Ten games. Getting him significant minutes in the next two games will help.

Photo: Tony Perkins (center) and his teammates leave the court after Sunday’s loss to Wisconsin. (Keith Gillett/Icon SportsWire)

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