The upside of nine days between games: rest. The potential downside: rust.
Iowa certainly looked as if it were suffering from the unwanted symptom of a long layoff in its 74-57 loss at Northwestern on Thursday. The Hawkeyes, whose previous game was against Michigan on Feb. 16, scored the first basket against the Wildcats, but Iowa quickly fell behind, and Northwestern rolled to victory.
When the teams met 15 days earlier, the Hawkeyes were the ones oozing confidence and moving the ball crisply on offense en route to a 78-65 win. This time, the Wildcats controlled matters from start to finish. There are a couple of lessons Todd Lickliter's club must take into its Feb. 28 matchup with Indiana.
For one, while the Hawkeyes (9-19, 3-12 Big Ten) handled the Hoosiers in the first meeting, winning 58-43, Iowa must be wary of struggling Indiana. The Hoosiers (9-18, 3-12) have lost nine straight games, but they will surely be motivated to make a better showing against Iowa this time around, and they will also be stinging from a lopsided home loss to Wisconsin on Thursday.
If the Hawkeyes don't play better defense than they did against Northwestern, they are going to struggle no matter which team they face in conference play. The Wildcats shot 58.3 percent from the field, including 22-for-30 from inside the 3-point arc.
In the first meeting with the Hoosiers, Iowa limited Indiana to just 35.6 percent shooting, and a return to that form would go a long way in helping Iowa shake off the tough loss to Northwestern.
NORTHWESTERN 74, IOWA 57: Poor shooting and porous defense are a surefire way to have a long night on the road, as the Hawkeyes can attest.
Northwestern (18-10, 7-9 Big Ten) seized control of the game early, rolled to a 39-19 halftime lead and never led by fewer than double digits in the final 20 minutes. Four Wildcats scored in double figures, but Iowa especially struggled stopping sophomore forward John Shurna, who scored a game-high 29 points on 10-of-14 shooting.
Northwestern's ball movement was excellent, and as a result Iowa simply surrendered too many open shots. Sophomore guard Matt Gatens led Iowa with 15 points.
--When Anthony Tucker was released from his scholarship recently, Iowa coach Todd Lickliter was asked why Tucker was allowed to dress but not play in any games after he was reinstated.
Tucker said he was pleased with his rotations and how the Hawkeyes were playing.
The only consistency to Iowa's rotations this season has been their inconsistencies. Such is life with a team overflowing with inexperience. But Lickliter's ways of yanking players in and out of the lineup is perplexing.
Freshman post player Brennan Cougill received his first DNP-CD on Feb. 16 against Michigan despite the Hawkeyes running low on big men. When center Jarryd Cole fouled out, Cougill remained nailed to the bench, leaving sophomore Andrew Brommer as the only available post player. Brommer played 14 minutes after sitting out losses to Ohio State and Illinois earlier this month.
When Lickliter was asked if Cougill was hurt, he responded, "No, maybe his feelings. He's fine. No problems."
Trying to find roles for inconsistent young players can be maddening to coaches, but then, in this lost Iowa basketball season, Lickliter doesn't seem to be helping his cause.
At various times over the last two seasons, Lickliter has jerked players like Brommer, Aaron Fuller, David Palmer and Devan Bawinkel in and out of the lineup at various times, with little explanation given.
With three games left in the regular season, the juggling will likely continue. The optimist will say Lickliter is using a down season to find out what he has in his youngsters. The pessimist will say it's a desperate coach not giving his players a chance to find a groove and fill a role.
Not all of them have been basketball-related decisions, but six players have left the program since Lickliter took over at Iowa. Now the Hawkeyes are marching toward the most losses in a single season in school history.
It's a good thing Lickliter has four years left on the contract he first signed, otherwise he might be next.
--The coaches used the eight-day break to recruit. Assistant coach Chad Walthall was expected to see junior college guard Kurt Alexander play. Alexander is averaging 19 points a game, tops among Division II teams in Iowa. Lickliter was expected to go visit recruits who have already committed.
ON THE SPOT: The Hawkeyes hit just three of 21 3-pointers against the Wildcats. G Matt Gatens and G Eric May combined to miss all 13 of their attempts behind the arc. The Hawkeyes missed some open shots, so perhaps this is another example of a long break affecting a club's rhythm.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "If I were in charge of scheduling, this is probably not the structure I would choose. But I'm not." -- coach Todd Lickliter, on Iowa playing four games in 10 days and then taking eight days off before its game at Northwestern on Feb. 25
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
SEASON RECAP: Iowa is showing signs of improvement, but at 9-19, the Hawkeyes are still on pace to set the single-season record for losses. The Hawkeyes have lost seven of their last eight. Their biggest win of the season came against Northwestern on Feb. 10.
PLAYER ROTATION: Usual Starters -- G Cully Payne, G Matt Gatens, F Aaron Fuller, G Eric May, C Jarryd Cole. Key Subs -- F Brennan Cougill, F Devan Bawinkel.
Iowa 78, Northwestern 65
Purdue 63, Iowa 40
Michigan 80, Iowa 78
Northwestern 74, Iowa 57
vs. Indiana, Sunday, Feb. 28
at Wisconsin, Wednesday, March 3
at Minnesota, Sunday, March 7
IN FOCUS: Iowa had a chance to get a huge victory but suffered an 80-78 loss to a Michigan team fighting for an NCAA Tournament berth on Feb. 16. The Hawkeyes couldn't figure out how to close out a good team in the last three minutes. Iowa struggled with poor shot selection and missed free throws down the stretch, two vital keys for young teams.
--G Matt Gatens has scored in double figures in five of his last six games. However, the Hoosiers held him in check in the first meeting, limiting him to just seven points on 2-of-9 shooting.
--F Aaron Fuller got in foul trouble and had just seven points in 20 minutes at Northwestern. Fuller scored a career-high 30 points in Iowa's previous game.
--G Cully Payne has shown improvement down the stretch. He's becoming a bigger part of the offense recently, scoring in double figures in four of his last five games, including 10 points at Northwestern.
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