IOWA CITY — Aaron White almost scoffed at the notion that it’s must-win time for the Iowa men’s basketball team.
“You’ve got 15-plus games on your schedule, including the Big Ten Tournament, the postseason. It’s way too early to say that,” said White, a sophomore. “We’ve lost two games in a row. It’s a one-game-at-a-time mindset, one-practice-at-a-time, just keep getting better.”
Iowa Coach Fran McCaffery doesn’t subscribe to the must-win logic and certainly won’t panic, even with a game against No. 22 Michigan State (12-3, 1-1 Big Ten) on Thursday. Two Big-Ten opening losses are difficult to bear but hardly will decide the season. That said, McCaffery has forced his players to re-examine their efforts in the wake of a 28-point loss at No. 2 Michigan on Sunday.
The Hawkeyes (11-4, 0-2 Big Ten) endured a brutal critique and their evaluation centered on self-reflection. McCaffery said the performance was worse than he expected and it’s now on to accountability. For everyone.
“They’ve got to look at it and justify to themselves and their teammates what they didn’t do,” McCaffery said. “I will never get on a guy for not doing something that he maybe isn’t capable of doing. But you can run back on defense. If you’re on a Division I scholarship, you better run back on defense, and we didn’t do that. That’s really disappointing.”
McCaffery’s message centers on toughness — not necessarily losing physical battles — but focusing on their tasks. It’s playing with effort on defense for every possession, limiting runs and not letting games get out of hand when they’re still within your grasp.
“I think ‘toughness’ is defined in more ways than not banging people,” McCaffery said. “This is mental toughness.”
Michigan State will test Iowa’s toughness on every possession. The Spartans offer a consistent barrage from their talent to the leadership of Coach Tom Izzo to the physical prowess in which the team prides itself. It’s that same pride that Iowa seeks, point guard Anthony Clemmons said.
“We’ve got a lot of tough guys in that locker room,” Clemmons said. “I think it took Coach McCaffery a couple of times to put in our head we are a tough team. Until we get that through our head and become a tough team and defend, there’s not going to be that many wins that we have if we don’t have that pride. I’m looking forward to bringing out the pride and passion in our game.”
While there’s no panic in Iowa’s approach, there is a sense of urgency. A third Big Ten loss won’t cripple the team’s season, but another poor defensive performance could prompt changes to Iowa’s starting lineup.
“Let’s say, for example, the two biggest culprits are your two leading scorers, which is arguably what the case was in our last game,” McCaffery said. “That’s a dilemma. When (Devyn) Marble and White are struggling defensively, we still have to score. That’s our two leading scorers.
“That makes that decision a lot more complicated, quite frankly. But it may come to that.”
White said the team needs to match its opponent’s intensity, respond and buy in defensively. He’s counting on the team delivering in those areas Thursday.
“I think this team is really learning after those first two games, we’re getting better, and I think we’re going to come out Thursday and fight back like we haven’t the last two games,” White said.
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