Iowa men’s basketball looks to clamp down on defense in Big Ten/ACC Challenge

After allowing 80 or more points in three-straight games, Iowa’s defense needs to be locked in tonight in its Big Ten/ACC Challenge against Virginia Tech.

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Iowa men’s basketball looks to clamp down on defense in Big Ten/ACC Challenge

Iowa forward Nicholas Baer dribbles the ball during the Iowa/Belmont Abbey basketball game in Carver-Hawkeye Arena on Thursday, Nov. 2, 2017. The Hawkeyes defeated the Crusaders, 96-64. (Lily Smith/The Daily Iowan)

Iowa forward Nicholas Baer dribbles the ball during the Iowa/Belmont Abbey basketball game in Carver-Hawkeye Arena on Thursday, Nov. 2, 2017. The Hawkeyes defeated the Crusaders, 96-64. (Lily Smith/The Daily Iowan)

The Daily Iowan; Photos by Lily

Iowa forward Nicholas Baer dribbles the ball during the Iowa/Belmont Abbey basketball game in Carver-Hawkeye Arena on Thursday, Nov. 2, 2017. The Hawkeyes defeated the Crusaders, 96-64. (Lily Smith/The Daily Iowan)

The Daily Iowan; Photos by Lily

The Daily Iowan; Photos by Lily

Iowa forward Nicholas Baer dribbles the ball during the Iowa/Belmont Abbey basketball game in Carver-Hawkeye Arena on Thursday, Nov. 2, 2017. The Hawkeyes defeated the Crusaders, 96-64. (Lily Smith/The Daily Iowan)

Adam Hensley, [email protected]

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After a trip to the Cayman Islands, Hawkeye men’s basketball returns to the Mainland, traveling to Blacksburg, Virginia, to take on Virginia Tech in this season’s Big Ten/ACC Challenge at 8 p.m. today.

The Cayman Islands Classic could have gone better for the Black and Gold, which returned black and blue following a 1-2 finish in the tournament. Iowa lost to Louisiana and South Dakota State, two quality teams, but both games Iowa was favored in.

Regardless, the Hokies are the Hawkeyes’ first Power-5 opponent of the season. Virginia Tech sits at 5-1 on the season — Iowa’s toughest opponent so far this season — yet head coach Fran McCaffery isn’t too worried.

“We’re sort of used to having this game right around this time,” he said. “I think all of us in our league, we know we’re going to have a really tough game against an ACC opponent. If it’s on the road, that obviously magnifies the difficulty of the game … it’s a unique schedule, it’s a difficult schedule.”

No matter the opponent, Iowa aims to lock down on defense to avoid a rerun of last year’s theme; the Hawkeyes led the Big Ten in scoring (80.5 points per game) but ranked dead last in scoring defense (78.1 points).

So far this season, Iowa averages 85 points per game, good enough for fourth in the conference. Defensively, the Hawkeyes are giving up 73.2 points, 12th-worst in the league. Iowa has given up 74 or more points in its last four games and 80 or more in the previous three.

RELATED: Iowa drops two in the Cayman Islands

Iowa, traditionally a team that embodies man-to-man defense, broke out a zone defense in the Cayman Islands in an effort to find some sort of defensive momentum.

McCaffery said his defensive philosophy won’t change for Virginia Tech, or any team for that matter, but he hinted that Hawkeye fans might see the team switch into a zone at times.

“We got some mileage out of [zone defense] at times, and there were times that we didn’t,” he said, “Sometimes, it’s a function of is the other team making 3s? A lot of time, they’re going to shoot 3s against your zone. South Dakota State made 3s, UAB made some 3s. I think it’s a defense that can be utilized at times. There [are] times where you got to play man. That’s how we’ve always played, that’s my philosophy.”

Virginia Tech has four players scoring in double figures this season. Justin Bibbs leads the way, dropping 21.3 points per game, but Ahmed Hill follows close behind at 19.8. Hill is shooting the 3-ball at a 59.5 percent clip.

Iowa’s defense can’t focus solely on closing out on shooters, though, as rebounding is another area the Hawkeyes need to improve. In Iowa’s final game of the Cayman Classic, a win over UAB, the Hawkeyes were out-rebounded 35-29, and the Blazers scored 20 second-chance points, 15 more than the Hawkeyes.

The Hawkeyes will get some much-needed help defensively tonight, however.

Nicholas Baer, who has yet to play in a regular-season game because of a broken bone in his pinky, aims to make his season début tonight. Ahmad Wagner, who filled in for Baer on the wing, will return as well after missing the Cayman Classic finale against UAB.

Baer won’t start — McCaffery said he still wants him coming off the bench — but having him back on the hardwood should give the Hawkeyes a much-needed energy boost.

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