By JOHN BOHNENKAMP
The second half of the Big Ten schedule was good for the Iowa men’s basketball team last season.
The Hawkeyes went 8-2 in the second half after a 4-6 start, finishing in a tie for fourth place in the conference. They went on to win four games in four days to win the Big Ten Tournament and the conference’ automatic berth into the NCAA tournament.
The second half for this season starts with Tuesday’s game against Northwestern at Carver-Hawkeye Arena. It’s a makeup game for the January 18 postponement.
Iowa (13-8 overall, 5-5 Big Ten, 35 NET) is in a slightly better position this season, but the Hawkeyes certainly could use another February/early March run.
They’re not thinking about that, though. Certainly not in another season where outside of conference leader Purdue and last-place Minnesota, everybody is beating up on everybody else.
“To be truthful, I don’t think we really look at that,” Iowa coach Fran McCaffery said last Friday when previewing Sunday’s game against Rutgers, a game the Hawkeyes won 93-82. “It’s a completely different team. I know it sounds cliché, but we’re just locking in on Sunday and trying to be the best version of ourselves on Sunday. We’ll worry about February when February comes.”
February will be here a couple of hours after Tuesday’s game with Northwestern, which has an 8 p.m. tipoff, ends.
Some storylines to consider:
Building a resumé. The Hawkeyes’ NCAA tournament resumé looks just as cluttered as most of the Big Ten teams contending for a bid.
Iowa has five Quadrant 1 wins, the second most among Big Ten teams, and is 7-7 against Quad 1 and 2 teams.
But there is also that home loss to Eastern Illinois (340 NET) that will be on the resumé as well. The NCAA tournament selection committee will consider that forward Kris Murray, the Hawkeyes’ leading scorer, missed that game with an injury, as did senior guard Connor McCaffery. But it’s still a big blemish.
The rest of Iowa’s schedule is a chance to cover that blemish.
Jan. 31 — Northwestern (15-5 overall, 6-3 Big Ten, 40 NET)
Feb. 4 — Illinois (15-6, 6-4, 26)
Feb. 9 — at Purdue (21-1, 10-1, 3)
Feb. 12 — at Minnesota (7-13, 1-9, 221)
Feb. 16 — Ohio State (11-10, 3-7, 29)
Feb. 19 — at Northwestern
Feb. 22 — at Wisconsin (12-8, 4-6, 74)
Feb. 25 — Michigan State (14-8, 6-5, 47)
Feb. 28 — at Indiana (15-6, 6-4, 20)
March 5 — Nebraska (10-12, 3-8, 99)
The rise of Ahron Ulis. Last year’s run was sparked by the emergence of guard Tony Perkins. Now the Hawkeyes are getting similar production from guard Ahron Ulis, who was in the same recruiting class as Perkins but has taken a little bit more time to develop.
Ulis is averaging 12 points per game in Iowa’s last five games. He’s shooting 56.1 percent from the field, 54.5 percent in 3-pointers.
McCaffery said Ulis could have been a bigger part in last season’s run, but was battling a wrist injury.
“If you remember, he was a great finisher and a pretty good pull-up guy, little floater, and then he had the wrist injury and he was struggling to finish, and I think at the end of last year, I think it affected him,” McCaffery said. “And to his credit, he got better and really worked on it in the summer, and you’re seeing (him be) more aggressive. I want him to be aggressive like that.”
Perkins 2.0. The move to put Perkins into the starting lineup last season was perfect, and he hasn’t left the lineup since.
But Perkins has had some inconsistencies in Big Ten play. He is averaging 9.8 points per game over the last five games, and while he’s had a couple of big games (22 points vs. Maryland, 11 in Sunday’s win), he also had just 21 points combined in January games against Rutgers, Michigan, Ohio State and Michigan State.
Perkins also has seven assists against 10 turnovers in the last five games.
A consistent Perkins makes this a better team.
Dix’s improvement. Forward Payton Sandfort had his struggles around the midpoint of last season as a freshman, but showed so much improvement down the stretch that McCaffery was running plays for him during the Big Ten tournament.
Josh Dix may be a candidate for that this season. Dix averages just 2.7 points per game, but he’s averaged five points per game in the last five. That doesn’t seem like a big improvement, but he had a 10-point game in the Jan. 12 win over Michigan, and he had eight in Sunday’s game.
There’s no question he’s more comfortable now than he was earlier in the season, and the big shots he’s hitting now should give him more confidence in the closing weeks.
Expanding the rotation. The minutes are piling up for several players. Murray has averaged almost 37 in conference play, while forward Filip Rebraca averages 32.4.
Those numbers should decrease with the return of forward Patrick McCaffery. Fran McCaffery hasn’t hesitated using Riley Mulvey in certain situations, and the backcourt could use time from freshman Dasonte Bowen, who didn’t play at all in Sunday’s game.
Photo: Iowa’s Tony Perkins shoots in the second half of Sunday’s game against Rutgers. (Stephen Mally/hawkeyesports.com)