AMES — It was at just about this point last season that the Iowa basketball team turned a corner.
The Hawkeyes had been floundering. They had lost four straight games. They had lost at home to Nebraska-Omaha.
But then, following a win against Stetson, things clicked into place in an upset victory over a ranked Iowa State team, and the Hawkeyes were on their way.
Fran McCaffery would love to see it happen that way again.
The Hawkeyes take the same record (4-5) into their annual battle with the Cyclones tonight at 7 p.m. in Hilton Coliseum and will be seeking to snap out of a slump in which they have lost five of their past six games.
“I don’t think it’s anything other than guys who consider themselves players trying to make plays,’’ McCaffery said on a Wednesday teleconference. “They’re kind of going on their own and they’re trying to be aggressive, they’re trying to do something positive.
“I don’t look at it as a complete negative like they’re just dismissing something. They’re trying to go and do something positive and be a player and be a competitor. There’s a fine line there because you always want that, but at the same time remembering the game plan, the scouting report and all the things we’ve prepared them for.’’
One of the marquee players who has not met expectations is point guard Jordan Bohannon, who committed five turnovers in a 77-64 loss at Indiana on Monday night. Teams have been making the 6-foot sophomore the focal point of their defense, hounding him for the full 94 feet to prevent the Hawkeyes from getting into their offense.
“I’ve been really frustrated with myself because I don’t feel I’m playing as well as I want to, I’m not playing up to my potential like I’m supposed to,’’ a somber Bohannon said following the loss at Indiana. “I feel like all these games we’ve lost are all my fault because I haven’t been playing as well as I should have and I should be running the team a lot better than what I’ve been doing.’’
McCaffery reiterated his confidence in Bohannon on Wednesday and said “I have no doubt he’ll be back on track soon.’’
Turnovers have been a major problem lately with the Hawkeyes handing the ball over to the opposition 18 times in each of the past two games.
Defense generally has been a bigger problem than offense and, as McCaffery pointed out, improvement at that end of the floor was what sparked the big turnaround at this point last season.
“We’re not locking into our defensive principles like we did later last season and like we did in the summer and in practice in the off-season,’’ Bohannon said. “We just haven’t had 40 minutes where we’re able to put it together.’’
Doing that will be a major challenge against an Iowa State team that has won five consecutive games after a stumbling start.
The guard trio of Nick Weiler-Babb, Donovan Jackson and Lindell Wigginton has been especially potent. Those three combined for 60 points and 17 assists in a comeback victory over Northern Illinois on Monday.
“I think they’re playing really well right now and it obviously starts with the three perimeter guys, who have been terrific,’’ McCaffery said. “They all give up the ball, they all can put it on the floor and they all shoot 3s.’’
Iowa State coach Steve Prohm said Iowa presents a unique challenge for his squad because of the size the Hawkeyes have inside and the number of players they use.
Iowa has used 10 or more players in every game this season and Prohm may have only eight bodies at his disposal tonight. Reserve Zoran Talley Jr. is sidelined with a stress fracture in his foot and Jakolby Long has been dealing with a concussion.
“I like playing eight guys, but when you only have eight guys, it’s different,” Prohm said. “Now you have foul trouble. You’re like, ‘Oh man, holy smokes.’ We need to get some guys healthy.”
The pace could be frenetic in the first few minutes, especially considering it’s a rivalry game, and Prohm recognizes that.
“The hype’s good for a couple of minutes, then you better have some substance,” Prohm said. “you better be good in transition, you better guard the ball, you better rebound and you better finish plays — run the floor and make the extra pass. You can’t celebrate after made baskets, you have to get your tail back because Iowa’s going to kick it ahead, like we want to do.
“It’s not a hype thing. I’ve always said substance wins, character wins — all of that stuff. It’s not a pressure thing, it’s just, appreciate the rivalry. It’s a terrific rivalry and Hilton will be electric.”