Iowa basketball: Hawkeyes brace for challenging stretch
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Iowa center Luka Garza (55) makes a 3-point basket Sunday against Cal Poly.
IOWA CITY — The holiday gauntlet is about to begin.
The Iowa basketball team embarks on perhaps the most ambitious Thanksgiving to Christmas journey ever faced by any Hawkeye team ever, playing seven straight games against opponents that won 20 or more games last season with only one of those games being played in the friendly confines of Carver-Hawkeye Arena.
Oh, and the first item on the menu is a Thursday night encounter with the team that finished second in last year’s NCAA tournament. The Hawkeyes (4-1) take on 12th-ranked Texas Tech (5-0) at 7 p.m. in the semifinals of the Las Vegas Invitational at Orleans Arena.
“At this level, you want to play the best and coach definitely has put us against the best,’’ freshman guard CJ Fredrick said. “We have a very tough stretch here but we’re ready for it. We’re going to prepare and we’re ready for the challenge.’’
That’s the recurring refrain among Iowa players. Despite losing starting forward Jack Nunge to a season-ending knee injury over the weekend, junior center Luka Garza said the Hawkeyes are “in a good place.
“I think we’re prepared …’’ said Garza, who leads the Big Ten in scoring at 22.2 points per game. “Obviously we had a tough loss early in the year (to DePaul) and we’re still trying to come back from that.
“We’ve got to be ready to play the next time we have a big, tough outfit in front of us. I think we’re just excited to continue to grow as a team. You can only become better by playing the best. In this stretch we’re going to see what we’re made of.’’
Texas Tech clearly qualifies as “a big, tough outfit.’’ The Red Raiders return only one starter and three lettermen from that national runnerup team, but they’ve rolled through the first five games of this season, outscoring the opposition by an average of 27 points per game. Freshman guard Jahmi’us Ramsey, the first five-star player ever recruited by the program, is averaging 19.4 points per game.
“They’re really good defensively as we all know,’’ Iowa coach Fran McCaffery said. “They’re also really good offensively. All four teams out there (in Las Vegas) are really good teams. It should be a great barometer for us.’’
Texas Tech is only the tip of a 3½-week iceberg that includes a game against either Creighton or San Diego State on Friday, a visit to Syracuse next Tuesday, the Big Ten opener at Michigan, a home game with Minnesota, a trek over to that house of horrors known at Hilton Coliseum for a game against Iowa State, then a matchup with Cincinnati in Chicago.
“I think we’re about as ready as you could be for this,’’ said senior Ryan Kriener, who figures to replace Nunge in the starting lineup. “It’s really early in the year and traditionally you don’t have this early in the year.’’
Kriener said the Hawkeyes were really helped by winning 2K Empire Classic in New York early last season. It provided a boost of confidence and quieted a lot of doubters.
“If you can win the tournament, it shoots you up in the rankings and everyone is talking about a repeat to March Madness and stuff like that instead of the season is over because we lost to DePaul and stuff like that,’’ Kriener said. “The sky was falling after that one, I guess.’’
McCaffery said he thinks his team learned from the loss to DePaul in the second game of the season and not only is playing much better now but has the right frame of kind.
“Last year it was a very us-against-the-world mentality and I think with the DePaul wake-up check, that’s starting to set in again,’’ Kriener said. “Last year nobody thought we were going to be anything special. There’s kind of the same feelings going around. We’re here to prove people wrong again.’’
The three teams joining Iowa in the Las Vegas Invitational field:
Texas Tech (5-0): The Red Raiders went 31-7 and got to the NCAA title game last season under coach Chris Beard and are off to another great start despite the fact that guard Davide Moretti is the only returning starter. Of the 11 players they have used this season, six are freshmen. Graduate transfer TJ Holyfield is the tallest starter at 6-foot-8 but the Raiders are 10th in the nation in rebounding margin. Freshman Jahmi’us Ramsey leads the team with a 19.4 scoring average.
Creighton (4-1): The Blue Jays, in their 10th season under former Iowa State and UNI head coach Greg McDermott, have only lost to Michigan. They have two guards averaging more than 17 points per game — 6-2 Marcus Zegarowski and 6-4 Ty-Shon Alexander — but their tallest starter is 6-7, which could make it tough for them to match up with Iowa. The top sub is 6-11 graduate transfer Kelvin Jones, who is attending his fourth school in as many years.
San Diego State (6-0): The Aztecs, in their third season under former Michigan and Illinois assistant coach Brian Dutcher, are very balanced. They have four players averaging in double figures, led by 6-1 Washington State transfer Malachi Flynn, who averaged 13.3 points and 5.8 assists per game. He has had two games this season with nine or more assists and no turnovers. The Aztecs also have some size with two 6-10 players in the starting lineup.
Back in the 1950s, the Iowa basketball program had a team so accomplished that it came to be known as the Fabulous Five.