By Adam Hensley
Iowa’s first Big Ten win of the season didn’t come easily.
After digging themselves a 20-point first-half hole, the Hawkeyes climbed out, eventually topping Illinois in overtime.
Iowa’s 104-97 victory wasn’t a perfect game by any means, but the Black and Gold needed a win. Because from here on out, the conference schedule gets tougher, and that starts at Rutgers at 6 p.m. today with a showdown in Piscataway, New Jersey.
“Even though [the Scarlet Knights] proved they’re a really good defensive team, you got to be able to score in a variety of ways,” head coach Fran McCaffery said. “For us, we’ve got to be able to establish the low post, obviously.”
The Hawkeyes did just that in their first Big Ten victory of the season in Champaign.
Iowa scored 38 points in the paint in the game. Tyler Cook and Luka Garza dominated down low in the starting lineup (21 and 19 points, respectively), and Ryan Kriener added a solid post presence offensively and defensively off the bench.
In 12 minutes of action, Kriener scored 5 points, grabbed 4 rebounds (2 offensive), blocked a shot, and recorded a steal.
“He was great, and he has the capability to do that all the time,” McCaffery said. “That’s what you need, because he was so good in that stretch — I didn’t have to play Luka in that stretch, and then when I put Luka back in, he was fresh, and he sort of dominated the game down the stretch. That’s what you want to see.”
Looking at the opponent, McCaffery noted that Rutgers is a solid team all around. The Scarlet Knights have size, length, quickness, and athletic power to compete with any team in the Big Ten, but above all, he highlighted the Knights’ willingness to buy into head coach Steve Pikiell’s philosophy.
“Steve’s got them playing hard, they’re competing,” McCaffery said. “They’re committed to him. It’s a change that right when he got there, it was made, and it was noticeable, and they continued to improve.”
Now in his second season as the head coach at Rutgers, Pikiell boasts a .500 record (26-26), but has the Scarlet Knights at 11-8 through 19 games this season.
At home, Rutgers has been on a tear. The Scarlet Knights knocked off then-No. 15 Seton Hall and then-No. 4 Michigan State in Piscataway earlier this season.
Corey Sanders has been arguably the biggest piece in Rutgers’ puzzle so far.
The junior guard from Lakeland, Florida, averages 14.2 points, 4.6 rebounds, and 3.3 assists per game — he can do a little bit of everything, and McCaffery knows it. He said he needs the Hawkeyes to be keyed in on Sanders throughout the game, because he’s a player who can heat up in the blink of an eye.
“He’s really fast, and he’s a tremendous finisher,” McCaffery said. “He’s got a phenomenal pull-up game. He’s capable from 3 but better attacking you. He’s really good [off] ball screens, and he’s also a guy who when he gets going, then he’s almost unstoppable.”
Defense hasn’t been Iowa’s strong suit so far this season, which means the Hawkeyes might result to fighting offense with offense.
Jordan Bohannon scored 29 points against Illinois on Jan. 11, draining five 3-pointers, which means Hawkeye and Scarlet Knight fans might be in for a highlight-filled guard duel in New Jersey.
Following Iowa’s trip East, the Hawkeyes will face a tough schedule at home and on the road.
Iowa will host the likes of Purdue, Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Michigan State and also travel to face Ohio State, Michigan, and Minnesota.