Fran McCaffery doesn’t have lot of time to analyze what happened Saturday as his Iowa basketball team was totally dominated by one of the best teams in the country.
Arriving tonight at Carver-Hawkeye Arena is what McCaffery figures might be one of the best players in the country.
Former Rockridge High School star Ethan Happ and Wisconsin will be in Iowa City for a 6 p.m. battle between two teams whose won-loss records aren’t quite what they hoped they would be at this point.
Iowa is 10-11 overall, in 13th place in the Big Ten standings at 1-7 and coming off an 87-64 loss to No. 3-ranked Purdue in which it trailed by as much as 37 points early in the second half.
Wisconsin, which has finished fourth or better in the Big Ten 16 years in a row, is in a similarly disappointing situation at 10-10 and 3-4.
But McCaffery sees only small similarities between the struggles of the Hawkeyes and the Badgers this season.
Wisconsin, he said, can always fall back on a 6-foot-10 junior he describes as “one of the most impressive players in the country.’’
“He’s a guy that can beat you in a variety of ways,’’ McCaffery said. “He’s a guard that plays center. He’s got 74 assists. Very few centers have that. He goes off the dribble, but he’s also a guy who can block your shot, a guy that steals the ball. He’s got 52 offensive rebounds. He’s averaging almost nine rebounds a game. He shoots a high number. So he impacts the game in so many ways.’’
Happ’s statistics aren’t radically different than they were a year ago, when he made first-team All-Big Ten with a much stronger, more experienced supporting cast.
His scoring is up, to 16.7 points per game from 14.0, and he leads the team in assists with 3.7 per game. But his rebounding average and shooting percentage are down slightly. And he’s still struggling at the free throw line, shooting only 52.1 percent.
But considering that he is now surrounded mostly by freshmen and inexperienced sophomores, it’s impressive that he has been as productive as he has been.
He’s still a headache for opponents trying to figure out how to defend him.
“It’s not like, OK, we’ll front him or we’ll deny him, we’ll double him or we’ll rotate guys on him or we’ll zone him,’’ McCaffery said. “He just kind of plays at his pace with a real keen understanding of what’s necessary for his team in that moment. He’s got a lot of experience so there’s no panic in him. He’s one of the more impactful players in college basketball right now.’’
McCaffery said he could see that Happ might become this sort of player when he watched him in high school and in the AAU ranks. However, he was verbally committed to Wisconsin by the time most schools recognized his potential.
“When I saw him play AAU ball was after he committed,’’ McCaffery said. “I didn’t see him before that. He committed pretty early. Most people thought his versatile skill set would translate well to the college level, and it has.’’
Prime opportunity: Tonight’s game represents a great chance for the Hawkeyes to turn their season in a positive direction after lopsided losses to Purdue and Rutgers last week.
They are 0-4 at home in Big Ten play, but Wisconsin isn’t nearly as formidable or as experienced as the Purdue club that shredded them Saturday. The Badgers are playing without two of their best guards and three of their top six players right now are freshmen.
McCaffery said a lack of execution — not a lack of effort — has been the biggest problem for his team lately but as the losses mount, confidence may be a bigger issue. Forward Tyler Cook said the Hawkeyes haven’t reached that point yet, though.
“Individually, as long as guys keep grinding, keep getting their work in, we’ll be fine,’’ Cook said. “We’ve just got to keep working as a group and try to stay together.’’
Sluggish starts: The common thread in the Hawkeyes’ recent struggles has been poor first-half performances. In six Big Ten games this month, they have trailed at halftime by margins of 12, 14, 6, 13, 14 and 31 points.
In four of those games, they outscored the opponent in the second half.
“We want to get off to a better start and come out and punch the other teams in the mouth, and the last couple of games it’s kind of happened to us,’’ freshman center Luka Garza said. “That’s something we’ve got to change.’’
Kriener out: Ryan Kriener sat out the Purdue game, reportedly due to concussion protocol, and McCaffery said he doesn’t think the sophomore center will play tonight either.
“Probably not,’’ he said Monday. “It doesn’t look good.’’
Position change: McCaffery said he needs to be open to changing things and one change he made Saturday was using senior Dom Uhl in the first half at the shooting guard position.
It’s the first time in more than two months that the 6-foot-9 Uhl has gotten into a game before halftime and it may be the first time he’s ever played guard for the Hawkeyes.
Uhl, who has seen only 46 minutes of action this season, played strictly at forward and center in his first three years at Iowa.