The Iowa basketball team isn’t exactly leaping back into Big Ten play on a high note.
The Hawkeyes struggled to put away an undermanned Bryant University team in their final non-conference tune-up Saturday. The score was tied with 2 ½ minutes remaining and the 25th-ranked Hawkeyes ultimately won by only five points.
But Iowa coach Fran McCaffery said he doesn’t think he’ll have any trouble getting his players refocused for what awaits them in a 6 p.m. road test Thursday night at Purdue.
“I think when you recognize that we’re going on the road to face a team that has been one of the premier teams in our conference for quite some time, I think that has their full attention,’’ McCaffery said.
The Hawkeyes (11-2) have won five straight games since dropping their first two Big Ten games and they’ll be going against a team that includes one of the best players in the country in guard Carsen Edwards.
It remains to be seen whether or not sophomore center Luka Garza will be able to play against the Boilermakers. Garza, Iowa's No. 2 scorer, has missed two straight games with a sprained ankle and McCaffery still wasn’t sure about his status Wednesday morning.
“He’s a lot better,’’ McCaffery said. “He’s going to try to go tonight in practice (Wednesday night). We’ll see how that goes. That will determine whether or not he can play.’’
Whether Garza plays or not, McCaffery knows his team has its hands full dealing with Edwards, a 6-foot-1 junior who is regarded as a co-favorite — with Wisconsin’s Ethan Happ — to be Big Ten player of the year.
Edwards leads the Big Ten in scoring, 3-point field goals and free throw percentage and is in the top 10 in the league in assists, steals and minutes played. He is one of only two active juniors in the country with 1,300 career points, 200 assists and 190 3-pointers.
“He’s a handful,’’ McCaffery said. “And they do a good job of running various actions for him, whether he’s got the ball or whether he’s off the ball. That makes him hard to guard. But the bottom line is he can create his shot any time he wants for himself and those guys always have your attention.’’
McCaffery said Edwards is surprisingly unselfish considering he is second in the country with an average of 25.8 points per game. He said that although he is the Boilermakers’ only returning starter from a year ago, he isn’t really playing any differently than in past years.
“He always played with a tremendous amount of confidence, even when he first got there,’’ McCaffery said. “A lot of guys, even if they’re really good early in their freshman year, they’re a little bit up and down. He always played with certain level of assuredness as to what he was going to do. If he missed a shot or missed two shots or missed five shots, he was going to keep coming at you and keep attacking you.’’
Although many of the mainstays from past seasons are gone, McCaffery said Edwards isn’t the only weapon the Boilermakers have. Their other starting guard, Ryan Cline, ranks second in the Big Ten behind Edwards in 3-point field goals. As a team, Purdue averages 10.8 3s per game, eighth best in the country.
While McCaffery admitted that tonight’s game is very important, he fell short of framing it as a do-or-die situation even though a loss would leave the Hawkeyes 0-3 in the Big Ten.
“Obviously, we know our situation,’’ he said. “It’s a critical game as we move back into Big Ten play but if we didn’t win our last game that would have been problematic as well ...
“It’s a big game, it’s a league game, it’s an important game. We want to win a Big Ten championship and in order to do so you need to win Big Ten games.’’