INDIANAPOLIS — In a two-game span in late January, Iowa sophomore forward Zach McCabe scored 40 points — 20 at Purdue and 20 against Nebraska.
In 11 games since then, McCabe has 50 points, never topping 10 in any game.
It should be noted the Boilermakers and Cornhuskers beat the Hawkeyes despite McCabe’s career games. Iowa is 6-5 in the meaty part of its schedule, and the 6-foot-7 McCabe has drawn the unfair assignment of guarding opposing centers Tyler Zeller (6-11), Ralph Sampson III (6-11), and Illinois sophomore Meyers Leonard (7-1), the Big Ten's lone 7-footer.
“Yeah, I’m comfortable with it. I’ve been fine with it all season. It’s no problem for me,” McCabe said. “Sometimes people might think I don’t belong there, but I’m playing as hard as I can and doing what coach needs me to do.”
McCabe shot just 1-of-8 during Iowa’s 64-61 victory over Illinois during Thursday’s Big Ten Tournament, but he grabbed six rebounds and helped control Leonard as an unsung factor.
Early in nonconference play, McCabe was settling in at power forward, letting center Devon Archie and Melsahn Basabe absorb the bigs.
But with freshman Aaron White’s emergence, McCabe’s touches declined in favor of White's offensive skill.
“At first, I was playing the 4, then Aaron came in and I knew I had to change what I was doing,” McCabe said. “I know I’m used to doing the dirty work, but I just had to keep guarding big guys like Meyers and come prepared every day.”
McCabe was the tallest player at Sioux City Bishop Heelan in high school, which readied him somewhat for the challenge.
“You’ve got to give credit to him. He probably doesn’t get as much credit as he deserves, and guys like that usually don’t,” sophomore guard Devyn Marble said. “But he understands that, but he does that for the team and we love him and respect that he plays that role for us.”
The easiest way to dog McCabe is he’s always in foul trouble, deflating his minutes and therefore his statline.
So it’s a tribute to McCabe that, while guarding Leonard, he did not foul once, and the Fighting Illini did not shoot a free throw.
“Obviously we were worried about that today because we were going against a guy that’s much bigger than (Zach),” Iowa coach Fran McCaffery said. “You’re worried about having foul trouble and getting them into the bonus, but that didn’t happen.
“He affects the game in a positive way even if he doesn’t have scoring numbers because he’s going to defend and he’s going to execute. He’s not a big mistake guy.”