Fair or not, Iowa has a reputation for being unable to win the big game. It finally appeared to shake that identity when it won at Ohio State three weeks ago, but then promptly dropped games to Michigan and Michigan State, its next two games against ranked teams. That's why, fair or not, that same question that has nagged Fran McCaffery and the Hawkeyes resurfaced before their rematch with the Buckeyes in Iowa City.
It probably won't go away any time soon.
Behind five double-digit scorers, led by Aaron Craft's 17, the Buckeyes won their second straight road game over a ranked opponent, knocking off No. 17 Iowa, 76-69. After trailing by two at halftime, the Buckeyes took the lead less than 90 seconds into the second half and didn't relinquish it.
Six days ago, it was the Buckeyes who were reeling. They lost an overtime game to conference bottom-feeder Penn State in Columbus and fell to 3-5 in the Big Ten. Now, they're back at .500 in conference play after consecutive wins over Wisconsin and Iowa, and look like a team that has reclaimed its identity.
With the departure of DeShaun Thomas, this season's Buckeyes simply were not going to be able to score with the same ease as last season's version. Instead, they rallied to No. 3 in the polls on the strength of a defense that currently ranks fourth in adjusted efficiency on KenPom.com. They had gotten away from that in conference play, allowing Minnesota and Nebraska to shoot at least 50 percent from the floor in their losses to those teams. Penn State, which shoots 44.6 percent on the year, knocked down just shy of half its field-goal attempts against the Buckeyes, as well. During the ESPN broadcast of Tuesday night's game, sideline reporter Allison Williams referenced a players-only meeting in practice in which they stressed the need to get tougher; ask Wisconsin and Iowa if the Buckeyes have bough into that self-imposed message.
The hyper-efficient Hawkeyes offense, which ranks sixth on KenPom, shot just 45 percent in the loss. Leading scorers Roy Devyn Marble and Aaron White combined to go 7-for-20 for 18 points, 12 fewer than they give the Hawkeyes on an average night. Iowa made just three of its 20 attempts from behind the arc, its worst night shooting the triple all season. Of course, that's a staple of the Ohio State defense. Coming into Tuesday night's game, the Buckeyes allowed their opponents to shoot just 26.5 percent from beyond the arc, best in the country. They did the exact same thing to the Badgers in Madison, limiting them to 40 percent from the floor and 3-of-17 from three.
Craft was the story of the night for the Buckeyes on the other side of the floor. He scored or assisted on each of Ohio State's baskets beginning with seven minutes left in the game until Iowa was desperately fouling in the final minute. That included a clutch three-point play, finishing a driving layup while absorbing a hit just one possession after his turnover allowed the Hawkeyes to cut the lead to four with 1:45 remaining. While Ohio State appears to be righting its ship, it is now fair for the critics to wonder if Iowa can consistently beat teams that expect to play during the second weekend of the NCAA tournament. The Hawkeyes haven't lost to a team with an RPI worse than 20 this year, but they've also only beat one team, the ever-familiar Buckeyes, in that class. They're 1-6 against top-20 RPI teams, and only three of their 17 wins have come against teams in the RPI top 50. Luckily for them, the Big Ten provides them with plenty of opportunity. They'll welcome Michigan and its No. 14 RPI to Iowa City on Saturday.