I'm in a glass case of emotion, friends. I woke up this morning in a full on sweat, scared poop-less from a full blown nightmare where Stanford keeps running the Annexation of Puerto Rico over and over and over and over and over... scoring every single time.
Since I was awake, I decided to jump in the car and drive north to Orlando from West Palm Beach -- my girlfriend dead sleep on my shoulder. With nothing but the quiet songs on my radio, I started to think about what Fran McCaffery and the Gang would have to do to beat Purdue and change an already disastrous start to my 2016.
Falling behind by 17 at halftime to KenPom's number one rated defense (number seven ranked overall team) was not one of those things. Neither was missing opportunities like these:
Yet here we are. This rendition of the Iowa Hawkeyes -- a team that has now won eight of their last nine -- have started the Big Ten slate with two wins over ranked teams (No. 1 ranked Michigan State on Tuesday night and now the No. 14 ranked Boilermakers) something I admittedly did not see coming when I dove into the conference schedule just a week ago.
It wasn't that I didn't believe in Iowa -- they are a top four team in the conference right now like it or not -- but to beat Michigan State at home and then go on the road and beat Purdue in West Lafayette for the first time since 2006 was a stretch even for the most thirsty Hawkeyes fan. Mackey Arena is not a place for the faint of heart... or those that go on elongated offensive droughts and face a 1.6% win probability with an entire half left to play.
Yet again, here we are.
This was one of those Iowa games that they normally lose horribly. While the Hawkeyes jumped out of the gates looking rather solid offensively, Purdue clamped down around the 12-minute mark and shot the hell out of the ball -- knocking down seven three pointers in the first half. For a three to four minute stretch -- where Dakota Mathias, Kendall Stephens and Ryan Cline caught fire on their way to a 16-0 Boiler run -- I started imagining glimpses of Christian McCaffery in a Purdue jersey.
How could my sports 2016 start so poorly?
It got so bad for a while there that I wondered if Iowa would just catch the bus at halftime and the sell out Mackey crowd could just watch a H.O.R.S.E contest between Rick Mount and the Boilermaker roster. It would've been more entertaining than watching the Hawkeyes passively hope Jarrod Uthoff's shots were worth double and when he wasn't open, launching ill advised jumpers way too early in the shot clock.
Once again, the Iowa senior had one of his patented first half performances, scoring 16 of his 25 total points. He was looked upon to bail Iowa out late in the shot clock and delivered. One note for opposing Big Ten defenders, if you aren't bordering assault while guarding Skeletor, you aren't doing it right. If the senior forward is not crowded, his quick release, zero effort jumper is going to go flying and he'll sting you. Uthoff is in this collegiate veteran mode right now where every shot on the floor looks like cake. Where the game -- whether he's looking to score on the wing, make a move in the post, front his man defensively, rebound a missed jumper or block a defenders shot -- is a weird Matrix-like scene around him.
He literally does everything well. He is one of the purest scorers in the conference, an immaculate shot blocker (17th in the country in %BLKS, totaling 3.2 per game), a fantastic team rebounder (tied with Adam Woodbury at 6.2 per game) and one of the best one-on-one ball defenders you will see in college hoops. Just look at all he does in this clip:
Not only does he block the jumper, but he sprints the floor giving Mike Gesell an outlet (right past the dude he just embarrassed), gives the last defender the ol' Braxton Miller treatment and scores the lay-up.
I can't say it enough, it's so nice to have him in black and gold.
But enough about the individual stuff. This come back was all about the team... team defense. For much of the first half, especially during the run that pushed the halftime lead to nearly twenty, Iowa sagged back and packed the paint on defense. They DARED the Boilermakers to shoot...
And those shooters took advantage.
Then something happened during halftime. Either Fran lit them up, or the seniors finally decided that they weren't going to lose at Purdue again. Either way, Iowa only allowed eight made baskets, forced 10 turnovers for 16 points (thanks in part to #NewFran and his 1-2-1 defensive scheme that bred a ton of half court traps), forced Matt Painter to burn all of his timeouts with 10 minutes left in the game, locked down Purdue shooters (1-11 from three in the second half) and didn't let a soul on the Boilermakers rosters get into any sort of rhythm.
The activity, the aggressiveness, it was eye opening. There wasn't a single glimpse of that energy beyond the first couple minutes of the game, so for the Hawkeyes to do what they did, stealing an almost guaranteed win on the road (remember, 1.2% win probability) is astounding.
Like Uthoff said, Iowa "played with a set of nuts" for the last twenty minutes.
If this defense can hang around to compliment the offense...
I won't get ahead of myself, yet. But this is the best defensive performance I've seen from this team this season. There was so much poise by the seniors -- which I've begged of for oh so long. They grinded out each and every possession, pushed the offense in their favor and in the end stole away one of those special, season altering wins that you remember for years -- basically the opposite of the Iowa State game.
One last thing, Iowa is the second team in 20 years to start Big Ten play 2-0 with both wins over ranked teams. The other team was the 2009-10 Michigan State Spartans... who went to the Final Four. Just sayin'.
For the first time in 2016, it is once again, Great to be a Hawkeye.