The first time the Iowa basketball team took on the Illinois Fighting Illini this season, they got behind. And they got behind fast.
The Hawkeyes were staring at a 10-0 deficit just 2 and a half minutes into the game. The Illini made their first four shots of the game, which included two three pointers and it took a Christian Williams jumper almost four minutes into the game to get the Hawkeyes off the schneid.
This was at the end of a stretch of games where the Hawkeyes were having trouble getting started, but that problem seems to have been fixed over the last few contests.
"It's always easier to shoot the ball when you're up 16," McCaffery said at his weekly press conference in regards to Illinois' fast start. "So, we can't let them get away from us like they did [in the first meeting]."
The Hawkeyes seem to have really put a stop to the slow starts, especially at home. They have been quicker out of the gate in their last five games and as a result, possess a winning record in those games at 3-2.
It's really been about the switch in the starting lineup. Both Nicholas Baer and Ahmad Wagner entered the starting lineup after the first game against Illinois. Baer entered for the injured Peter Jok and Wagner entered for Cordell Pemsl. Ever since the switch was made, Iowa's energy has been better to start games.
"You sort of want him [Baer] on the floor all the time," McCaffery admited. "But he just gets so tired because he goes so hard, so that's what you love about him," McCaffery stated.
After starting two straight games against Ohio State and Rutgers, Baer assumed his bench role again in favor of the Big Ten's leading scorer, Peter Jok. But there has been no shortage of energy from Baer or the others since McCaffery switched it back up. It has a lot to do with an increased emphasis on focus and the fact that Ahmad Wagner still gives you a lot of early energy.
Having Peter Jok back in the lineup won't hurt, either.
"Yeah, he's [Peter] been good," McCaffery said when asked about Jok's health. "He looks really good. He's spent a lot of time in the training room, and with Bill Maxwell our strength coach, and he's going hard. He'll go hard again today," McCaffery added.
A healthy Jok will help in round two against the Illini because it was clear in the first game that he was not playing at anywhere near 100%. He scored just 10 points in 32 minutes, but was 3-of-9 from the field and 1-of-5 from three point land. Four turnovers also did not help the Hawkeyes in that game.
Leaving wide open three point shooters was also a problem the Hawkeyes had back in the first meeting. The Illini shot 47% from 3-point land for the game, including a shade over 54% in the first half. That allowed them to jog into the locker room bolstering a 16 point lead.
"The thing about [Illinois] is they shoot the ball well from three, but they also shoot the ball well mid-range," McCaffery stated. "[Leron] Black, for example, he can really shoot the ball. Maverick Morgan really shoots the ball extremely well. You think of those guys as big, strong guys, they're going to score inside, but they're face up jump shooters too, so our closeouts have to be better," McCaffery said.
Iowa also allowed Illinois' Michael Finke to really get away from them back in late January. He had a game high 17 points in 21 minutes in the first meeting and also shot 7-of-10 from the field, including 3-of-5 from behind the arc.
"He's [Finke} playing as good as anyone in the league right now." McCaffery admitted. "I think he's 52% from three, but he's also more complete than he's ever been. This year he's been much more consistent, but he's more physical, and like I said, much more complete," McCaffery acknowledged.
While the Hawkeyes lost the game by a fair margin, it was really the first half that got them into trouble. They were not only shooting poorly, but Finke nailed 2 of his 3 threes in the first half and Jalen Coleman-Lands hit two of his own. So, the defense was not there either.
The Hawkeyes did struggle at both ends of the court in that game, but there were some extenuating circumstances back on January 25th. The Hawkeyes were playing with Peter Jok not nearly at 100% and Jordan Bohannon was fighting the flu bug. Now, you never want to make excuses for a team, but Iowa is a completely different team when both of those guys are at their best.
Iowa's talented redshirt freshman, Isaiah Moss, played just 6 minutes and did not score, while Brady Ellingson had yet to hit his hot streak. Illinois should be seeing a bit of a different looking Iowa team on Saturday afternoon.
With how tough the Hawkeyes have been inside Carver-Hawkeye Arena during Big Ten play, you'd like to think this is a game they take care of. But the energy needs to be there from the jump, especially on the defensive side.