The Iowa basketball team reached the halfway point of the Big Ten schedule on Sunday and almost every player who was asked to assess the first 10 league games used the same phrase.
Ups and downs.
It fits. It’s already been a bit of a roller coaster ride for the Hawkeyes. And it’s only half over.
The Hawkeyes lost their first three Big Ten games, then reeled off five wins in a row. Then they turned around and dropped two more games in the past week to arrive at the midway point 5-5, 16-5 overall.
“Ups and downs,’’ sophomore center Luka Garza said following a 92-87 loss to Minnesota on Sunday. “We’ve shown a lot of good stuff but we’ve also shown a lot of things we can’t do.’’
He’s talking about defense. It has been the big variable that very often has determined the outcome of those first 10. When the Hawkeyes play tough, cohesive defense, they usually win. When they don’t, like Sunday, they quite often lose.
Here is some good news: Coach Fran McCaffery’s team probably is still on track to make the NCAA tournament. If the Hawkeyes throw up another 5-5 in the second half, they’ll be 21-10 overall and have a better-than-even chance of slipping into the Big Dance, especially if the Big Ten lands as many as 10 berths, as some have suggested.
Here is more good news: The second half schedule looks slightly easier than the first half.
The Hawkeyes are all done with Michigan State and Purdue, who have accounted for three of their five losses and appear to be two of the top three teams in the league.
They do have games remaining with two other teams near the top of the standings — Michigan and Maryland — but they get them both at home. And those two have not been as formidable lately. Maryland lost to 13th-place Illinois on a neutral court on Saturday.
Six of Iowa’s 10 remaining games are against teams that currently are 3-6 in league play: Indiana (2), Rutgers (2), Northwestern and Nebraska. It also has a game remaining against 3-5 Ohio State.
It’s been a roller-coaster ride for almost all those teams lumped in the middle of the Big Ten standings. Indiana has lost six straight games after a 3-0 start. Nebraska lost on the road at Rutgers and a home game with Ohio State in the past week, and has lost No. 2 scorer Isaac Copeland for the remainder of the season. Ohio State had a five-game losing streak before beating Nebraska on Saturday.
All of those teams appear to be very beatable right now for the Hawkeyes. If they play defense.
The toughest remaining game might be a March 7 date at Wisconsin. It will be Ethan Happ’s Senior Night so that should be a more-raucous-than-usual crowd in Madison.
Although the Hawkeyes were visibly disappointed following losses to Michigan State and Minnesota over the past week, there doesn’t appear to be any lack of hope that this can still be a very good season.
“We knew coming into the season that this is the best league in the country,’’ junior forward Tyler Cook said after the Minnesota defeat. “A lot of great teams. There are going to be ups and downs. I don’t think you’ll find us moping around.
“We lost a basketball game tonight to a good team but that’s the game. We’ve just got to come back and be ready for our next game, whenever that is ... I don’t even know.’’
That would be Friday night at home against fifth-ranked Michigan. Iowa officials already have announced that the game is a sellout, the Hawkeyes’ first of the season.
Luka on a roll: Garza matched his career high with 25 points against Minnesota and has now scored 20 or more points in four consecutive games. He’s the first Iowa player to do that since Aaron White in 2015.
He has raised his season scoring average from 12.9 to 14.8 during that span and has shot 62 percent from the field over the past five games.
But Garza, who wears his emotions on his sleeve more than any other player on the team, wasn’t really in a mood to discuss any of that that following Sunday’s game.
“I’m not so proud of myself tonight because I think I was poor on the defensive end,’’ he said.
Unranked: Not surprisingly, the Hawkeyes fell out of the Associated Press Top 25 after losing their last two games.
They now are the sixth team listed under the others receiving votes. Big Ten teams still in the Top 25 are: Michigan fifth, Michigan State sixth, Purdue 17th, Maryland 21st and Wisconsin 24th.
POWS: Two players who had big games against Iowa during the past week shared the Big Ten’s player of the week award.
Michigan State’s Cassius Winston had 23 points and seven assists against the Hawkeyes on Thursday and Minnesota’s Jordan Murphy hit them with 23 points, 11 rebounds and six assists on Sunday.
Murphy also moved into second on the Big Ten’s career rebounding list in that game, passing former Purdue great Joe Barry Carroll. Murphy now has 1,150 career rebounds. He’s not likely to catch Ohio State icon Jerry Lucas, who hauled down 1,411 boards.
The Hawkeyes will see this week’s Big Ten freshman of the week on Friday. Michigan’s Ignas Brazdeikis won that award after averaging 19 points and nine rebounds in a pair of victories last week.