Hawks, Cyclones playing with an early swagger

—AP Photo Iowa's Connor McCaffery (30) celebrates with teammate Tyler Cook in New York.

Drawing any conclusions from November basketball is almost always an exercise in futility.

Early-season success often wanes and ultimately winds up being fool’s gold by March. Teams are simply too unpredictable from game to game; the execution is lacking, the defense is ragged, the flow is choppy.

So, for the time being, I will label my optimism as “guarded” when it comes to the Iowa and Iowa State men’s hoop programs. The Hawkeyes and Cyclones are both off to auspicious starts, with 10 combined wins in their first 11 contests.

I try not to focus as much on the scores or even the results at this time of year anymore. Yes, both programs look good on paper. And yes, they pass the eye test — so far, at least.

More importantly, though, these teams are playing with an edge. There is a collective toughness to both Iowa and Iowa State’s demeanor that is much more important than breaking down shot selection or even analyzing wins and losses before winter break.

We knew before the season even began that Iowa would score. We knew players like Tyler Cook and Luka Garza could fill up a stat sheet.

We also knew that the Hawkeyes were nothing short of atrocious on defense a year ago, giving up 80 or more points in the Big Ten on 12 different occasions — a number that still doesn’t even seem possible. Iowa ranked 242nd nationally in adjusted defense for the 2017-18 campaign, according to Ken Pomeroy.

The defensive woes were partially a personnel problem, but mostly, an attitude issue. Teams either collectively commit themselves to defense, or they don’t. It’s the less glamorous, more difficult side of the game from an effort standpoint.

But defense feeds offense, and keeps players in a more consistent rhythm. So while the Hawkeyes’ offensive numbers may not be getting “better” so far this season, per se, they’re becoming a more well-rounded team thanks to a renewed dedication to each other on the defensive end of the court.

Connor McCaffery is just a freshman, but he brings an aggressive swagger to this group. He’s a playmaker who can create his own shot, which was sorely lacking from last season’s Iowa rotation.

McCaffery takes pressure off of non-traditional point guard Jason Bohannon as a distributor; he is averaging 6.7 assists per 40 minutes. And he’s getting to the free throw line early and often; McCaffery is making 88 percent of his foul shots and attempting 11.3 per 40 minutes. As a result, Iowa currently ranks first in the nation in free throws made and fourth in attempts.

Iowa’s most valuable athlete so far according to Player Efficiency Ranking — an advanced metric which measures overall contributions to the lineup — is Garza. No surprise. But among regulars, Ryan Kriener is second and McCaffery is third — both ahead of Cook. Kriener has been a grinder off the bench in relatively limited minutes, and McCaffery offers an ease and confidence that makes the Hawks more sure of themselves than they were a year ago.

What about true freshman Joe Wieskamp? Former Fort Dodge Dodger and Hawkeye Wade Lookingbill created quite a stir on Twitter Wednesday when he proclaimed, “if he stays healthy, Joe Wieskamp will become the all-time leading scorer at Iowa.” Lookingbill isn’t known for bold, hyperbolic proclamations; if Muscatine’s Wieskamp — a four-star, Top-50 national prep — even flirts with bringing that prediction to fruition, look out.

Iowa State is more of a mystery at this point, which appears to be nothing but a good thing. The Cyclones are 5-1 despite seeing star Lindell Wigginton play in only one of those contests. Cameron Lard, Solomon Young and Zoran Talley, meanwhile, haven’t suited up at all.

Newcomer Marial Shayok has been even better than advertised, averaging 19.5 points and 6.5 rebounds as a senior transfer from the University of Virginia. And no one really knows what ISU has on its hands quite yet in young supernova Talen Horton-Tucker, a 17-year-old freshman from Chicago who has wowed fans and professional scouts alike with a 15-point, 6.5-rebound start.

For as impressive as Shayok and Horton-Tucker have been, junior transfer Michael Jacobson — who used to torture CIML schools, including Fort Dodge, as a two-sport star at Waukee — has been borderline brilliant.

Jacobson, who was solid if not spectacular for two seasons at the University of Nebraska, brings that “it” factor to the Cyclones — just as McCaffery has to Iowa. He’s shooting 67 percent from the field so far, averaging 17.7 points and a team-best 7.3 rebounds. Jacobson’s PER is even better than both Shayok and Horton-Tucker.

Iowa State is one of only 15 squads in the country so far to land in Ken Pomeroy’s Top-30 for adjusted offense (19th), adjusted defense (28th) and overall ranking (19th). The short-handed Cyclones have already beaten Missouri by 17 points, Illinois by 16 and San Diego State by 30.

Conventional wisdom assumes ISU will be borderline unstoppable when at full strength. It will be interesting to see what the addition of Wigginton, Lard and Young does to this rotation, though. So much of basketball is about cohesiveness and chemistry; the current group has worked incredibly well together. Hopefully, the Cyclones will continue to make the whole greater than the sum of its parts, which has been the case to date.

There will be adversity. Bumps in the road. Mid-season slumps. Shooting woes. Defensive struggles. This is all a part of living, learning and growing over the course of a season in major-college hoops.

Yes, November basketball tells us very little in the grand scheme of things. But it can also offer glimpses of potential and glimmers of hope. We’ve seen plenty of both from both Iowa and Iowa State so far. Their matchup on Dec. 6 will tell us even more.

Buckle up and enjoy what might be a very entertaining season on the hardwood for a state in desperate need of one.

Eric Pratt is Sports Editor at The Messenger. He may be reached afternoons and evenings at (515) 573-2141, by e-mail at sports@messengernews.net, or on Twitter @MessengerSports

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