IOWA CITY – It was an ugly beginning to the Big Ten schedule last season for the Iowa basketball team.
The Hawkeyes opened conference play with six consecutive losses, losing by an average margin of 14.8 points. By the time Iowa won its first Big Ten game – Jan. 23 at home to Indiana – the season was pretty much buried.
Five of those six games were against nationally-ranked opponent – one opponent, Ohio State, was No. 2 and No. 1 in the polls in two of those games – and the rebuilding Hawkeyes had no chance to gain any momentum.
The last thing Iowa wants to do is go through that again.
“We just want to get off to a better start,” said sophomore guard Devyn Marble.
The Hawkeyes (8-5) face a similar daunting schedule to start the Big Ten this season. Four of the six games are against nationally-ranked teams,
So how do they survive this time around?
It’s simple, Iowa coach Fran McCaffery said.
Easier said than done, but the Hawkeyes’ Big Ten journey starts with today’s 8:30 p.m. game against Purdue at Carver-Hawkeye Arena.
The Hawkeyes come into the game off of one of their best stretches of the season. They handled Drake at home, dominated a weak Central Arkansas team, then pulled away late to beat Boise State, all of the games coming in a six-day period.
But reality is coming. No more Chicago States and Central Arkansas-types on the schedule the rest of the way.
“It’s the Big Ten,” McCaffery said. “It’s one tough game after another. Everybody’s good. There isn’t an easy game.”
It starts with Purdue (10-3), a team the Hawkeyes knocked off in the final game of the regular season last year in the team’s biggest win of the season.
McCaffery knows how challenging the Boilermakers are with a lineup that includes three players – forward Robbie Hummel (17.5 points per game), guard Lewis Jackson (10.8 ppg.) and Ryne Smith (11 ppg.) – who average in double figures in scoring.
“Those three really present some problems,” McCaffery said. “Obviously they’ve got some weapons. They are a tough team to defend.”
Hummel has been especially impressive, considering he’s coming back from two season-ending knee surgeries. He is third in the Big Ten in scoring, fourth in 3-pointers per game (2.6) and sixth in blocked shots (1.6).
“He’s as complete of a player as you’ll ever see,” McCaffery said. “I’ve been impressed with how he’s played. He’s still ‘the guy’, and that’s not easy to do when you’re coming back from two knee injuries.”
Smith will also challenge an Iowa defense that has been bad at guarding the perimeter all season. He leads the Big Ten in 3-pointers per game, and tied a program record with eight 3-pointers in a game against High Point earlier this season.
Iowa comes in ranked last in the Big Ten in field goal percentage defense and 3-point percentage defense.
The key to the conference season, McCaffery said, will be consistent play in every game, something the Hawkeyes struggled to do during the nonconference schedule.
“We have played well in the parts of every game, even the ones we’ve lost,” McCaffery said. “But we can’t have long stretches where we don’t do anything. We can’t have six or seven-minute stretches where nothing goes right.”