The Iowa men’s basketball team and its fans breathed a big sigh of relief Sunday.
The Hawkeyes got into the win column in a Big Ten game for the first time this season, Jordan Bohannon broke out of a shooting slump, several other players had encouraging performances and they defeated a team that had been ranked just above them in the national polls.
Now they face their biggest demon of all: A road game. The Hawks visit Northwestern tonight in an 8:07 game at newly renovated Welsh-Ryan Arena.
“We just have to take the positives of what we did today and we just need to make sure we execute on the road,’’ forward Tyler Cook said following Sunday’s 93-84 conquest of Nebraska. “Every environment in the Big Ten is going to be a tough one to play in, so we’ve got to stick together and make sure we execute down the stretch.’’
The Hawkeyes haven’t always done that. They are 1-10 in Big Ten road games over the past two seasons and have trailed by at least 17 points in each of those games. Amazingly, they were able to come back and win one of those games (last season at Illinois) and nearly did it in another one.
Their average margin of defeat in those losses is 16 points.
Iowa coach Fran McCaffery would love to see his team just not dig itself such a deep hole, as it did in road losses at Purdue and Michigan State this season, and react better if it does fall behind.
“We just need to be more patient offensively, I think, and not try to get it all back at once,’’ McCaffery said.
The Hawkeyes (12-3, 1-3 Big Ten) often have been helpless to stop long scoring runs by the opposition in those road games. Michigan State, for example, opened the second half by outscoring the Hawkeyes 23-3.
“It’s something we need to be more cognizant of as players on the floor,’’ said Bettendorf’s Nicholas Baer, the team’s only senior. “We can’t come down and quick shoot the ball and come down and take a contested two. We need to either get fouled or go inside and get a bucket or a wide open shot and just work the ball more instead of being so rushed.’’
In Northwestern, Iowa will be facing a team that also got its first Big Ten win Sunday, edging Illinois at home.
The Wildcats (10-5, 1-3 Big Ten) still have two starters from the team that claimed the school’s first NCAA Tournament berth in 2017 and they have supplemented their talent pool with a pair of high-level transfers. A.J. Turner played the first two years of his career at Boston College and Ryan Taylor is a graduate transfer who led the Missouri Valley Conference in scoring last year at Evansville.
“Those two guys are really good players and you’ve got (Vic) Law and (Dererk) Pardon, who are two of the better players in our league already,’’ McCaffery said. “But you lose Scottie Lindsey and you lose Bryant McIntosh and you replace them with Taylor and Turner. It’s not very much of a drop-off like it would have been had you not signed those transfers.’’
Northwestern also has an almost brand new facility. It played all its home games last season at Allstate Arena while 67-year-old Welsh-Ryan was getting a facelift.
“It’s no secret that they had the worst facility in the league,” said McCaffery, “and now they have a state-of-the-art facility.’’
That should only enhance the hostile atmosphere the Hawkeyes face as they try to fight their way back into the Big Ten race.
“It’s a dogfight every night in this league …’’ junior center Ryan Kriener said. “We’re a better team than we were last year and we’re just trying to prove that every night out.’’