So often in sports, we hear about players/teams/coaches having chips on their shoulders for one reason or another and using whatever slight they have to prove so-and-so wrong. In my almost ten years of having a vested interest in Iowa athletics, I can't even begin to count how many times that label has been attributed to the Hawkeyes vast sports programs. It's as if, as a university, we're always out to prove the naysayers wrong.
Well, probably because we are.
And right now, this basketball team -- constructed almost to perfection by Fran McCaffery and his coaching staff -- is seemingly making that sports cliche their season long mantra. The Hawkeyes are out there putting on one of the ultimate "us verses them" stretches I can remember in Iowa sports history and anyone that has watched this team duke it out since that Iowa State game will jump at the opportunity to agree with me. This team, led by such an amazingly talented upper class, refuses to lose. They continue to adapt on the fly while McCaffery pushes all of the right buttons. Everyone is "getting involved" from the starters, to the second unit, to the reserves. Everyone is "leaving it all on the floor". Everyone is playing for the "greater good" while shelving whatever individual agendas they might have that so often plague college basketball.
Nobody believed to start the season myself included (remember the exhibition loss) and the entire program took notice. Now they're entering every game in spite and proving to all of college basketball nation just how good they are. I mean nobody thought a Top-10 ranking and honest to goodness contention for their first regular season Big Ten title since 1979 was even in the works. But it is.
Everything is front of this Iowa team. Everything.
Against Michigan, much was the same. The Hawkeyes were offensively masterful in almost every single lineup McCaffery inserted. In terms of ball movement in the half court and making the right reads, this may be the best I've seen Iowa run their sets all season long (which was huge, as Iowa only had two fast break points the entire game). There was a constant range of motion that opened up gaping windows for easy offensive opportunities that Iowa converted on half the time. No matter what the Wolverines tried to do, the Hawkeyes had an answer. Traps, pressure, doubles, zones, it didn't matter as the Hawkeyes read, reacted and shared the rock (19 assists on 31 made buckets) on their way to another Big Ten victory.
It was no wonder the Hawkeyes were able to cash in an 11-0 run to start the game and another 12-0 run at the most important stretch of the second half (after the Wolverines outscored Iowa 19-10 after halftime) when they were able to create shot opportunities like these so consistently:
The Hawkeyes showed once again how much they love themselves some home cooking. Iowa shot 50.8% from the field, 45.5% from three (going 7-11 during the second half) and 90.9% from the charity stripe on the night. They scored 34 points in the paint and 16 points off turnovers while only turning the ball over four times the entire game.
They were offensively beautiful, especially once Peter Jok got going in the second half.
On the defensive end of things, the Hawkeyes were athletically aggressive, and continued playing fantastic help side D, while jumping in and out of open passing lanes (forcing 13 Wolverine turnovers). It dawned on me tonight that Iowa's defensive spark seems to stem from Mike Gesell, who is just a bulldog out there. He is an attacker at the defensive point, cutting off driving lanes and passing windows with tremendous poise and guts. When the officials allow him to dig in on the opposition, Iowa is going to be extremely hard to beat -- especially when Adam Woodbury is battling whatever Big Ten big man down low and Uthoff is wandering around the weakside hoping to introduce you to his one man S.W.A.T. team.
Also, props to McCaffery for switching to a zone against Michigan's small ball lineup during the Wolverines early second half run. He dared Jim Beilein's squad to shoot them out of it while clogging all potential drive and kick opportunities; a gamble that paid off massive dividends. This could've been disastrous -- especially with how well Michigan shoots the three -- but McCaffery has a great feel for what his nine man rotation can do in critical moments and trusts that they will execute accordingly.
And to their credit, Iowa is now 5-0 in the conference for the first time since 1997 and are winners of 11 straight conference games dating back to last year, which is the longest streak since the 1969-70 season. With a trip to Rutgers on Thursday, Iowa looks primed to be 6-0 before a pretty brutal four day stretch where they will have their rematch with Purdue (at home) and a road trip to Maryland.
But, like the good Coach Ditka says, "Yesterday is history. Tomorrow's a mystery. And today is a gift... that's why they call it the present." And in this current present, Iowa is 5-0 in the conference, 14-3 overall and primed to be a Top-10 team in the next AP Poll.
Also, is there any better present than this?:
PLAY THE POLKA!