NORTH LIBERTY — Once upon a time but not long ago, Eric May was a heralded basketball recruit from Dubuque Wahlert.
As a high school junior, May drilled a 35-foot shot at the buzzer to lift Wahlert to the 2008 Class 3A title. He averaged 24.3 points a game and his future appeared bright when he signed with Iowa.
Then, real life happened. Iowa posted its worst record in school history at 10-22 his freshman year, and Coach Todd Lickliter was fired. May’s sophomore produced highs and lows ranging from 16 points against Minnesota to zero the next game against Ohio State. His junior campaign was the most physically frustrating, suffering a back injury in January that lingered throughout the season and prevented him from reaching a modicum of his potential.
Through it all, the 6-foot-5 May has remained a Hawkeye, unlike his freshman year buddies Brennan Cougill and Cully Payne. It’s not been easy, but the adversity has deepened May’s commitment to the program. As the squad’s only senior, May has a background that no one else can possess. He has also has the insight to reflect on the program from its rock-bottom status to its current resurgence.
“That seems like a long time ago,” May said Sunday after his Prime Time League game. “The years go quick but it’s weird, but I’ve been through a lot.
“My freshman year was kind of a strange year with Coach Lickliter and his health. It was not great then and things were not going well. We really weren’t a tight-knit team. When Coach (Fran) McCaffery got here, things started changing. This year, even more so than last year, everybody’s together. It’s not even comparable to what it used to be. My freshman year and right now, I’m happy these guys are experiencing this because my freshman year that wasn’t what a team was like. This is.”
May has started 69-of-95 games played in his Iowa career. He started the first 21 games last season but a midseason slump forced him to the bench. He then suffered a back strain that led to spasms and he barely could function on the court.
May missed two games in February because of the injury, and his statistics plummeted. In his final 10 games played, he totaled 49 minutes and scored just two points. After scoring in double digits the first three games, he ended the season with a 4.3 scoring average.
“Just knowing what I can do, what I’m capable of and not being able — my body wouldn’t let me do it — it was frustrating,” he said. “But I’m past that now.”
After an offseason of extended rest and intense stretching, May is back to his physical standard. He’s the strongest guy in the workout room and he sets the tone for everybody, from the juniors who know him well to the incoming freshmen.
“We lift together every day,” Iowa junior forward Zach McCabe said. “I think he can lift a little bit more than me because he’s a freak basically. He’s getting stronger and better every day. We’re all looking for him, he’s our leader this year and that’s what we need from him.”
“He’s such a hard worker,” Iowa freshman guard Mike Gesell said. “In the weight room it’s just tremendous watching him, his work ethic. We learn a lot from him, just his leadership, his communication skills and everything. I think he’ll be a great leader on the floor for us this year.”
McCaffery said earlier this spring May “is my captain” and he is “very positive” May will contribute heavily next year.
“He wants to go after a starting position,” McCaffery said. “I’m sure he feels like if he’s healthy he can go get it. Noboby was playing better than him at the beginning of last year, including Matt (Gatens). He was playing better than anybody. Then when the games started, he wasn’t as good. He was still pretty good, then he got hurt. He wasn’t the same.”
May wants to rely on his best attributes, such as his ability to attack the basket and crash the boards. He wants to use his strength to draw fouls while taking shots and on defense.
But returning to a starting role won’t be easy for May. The talent infusion has put just about every position up for grabs regardless of seniority. But May said he wouldn’t want it any other way.
“If we’re not getting better guys, if I’m not having to work for a position, then something’s wrong,” he said. “Nothing’s handed to anybody. Nobody has been given anything on this team, which is good. That’s going to make us better.
“We need leadership on the court, and I’m going to bring that and do what I’ve got to do, whether it’s rebounding, shooting, whatever. Our guards are really talented, but I intend on being on the court making a difference.”
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