IOWA CITY – Cross off “The Real World: Big Ten” as a series that’s winning viewers’ hearts and minds around here.
Another marquee opponent, another defeat for Iowa’s basketball team. What’s more maddening, getting blown out at Michigan or doing not quite enough and falling at home to Indiana and, Thursday night, Michigan State?
You could have been as coldly objective as you wanted before Dec. 31 in saying the Hawkeyes were up against it in their first three conference games. They faced ranked, ranked, and ranked. Pedigreed, pedigreed, and pedigreed. Tough duty for a team starting three freshmen.
But, the walk-before-you-can-fly mentality doesn’t seem to register with Fran McCaffery, who had no problem calling out his team’s toughness, or lack of it, at the offensive end in his Iowa team’s 62-59 loss to Michigan State at Carver-Hawkeye Arena.
“Didn’t play with any toughness,” McCaffery said. “No, did not. And that’s disappointing. Offensively we played with no toughness whatsoever.”
McCaffery had every reason to be disappointed. This game was there for the taking, a win that might have been a game-changer for the program, a springboard into the rest of the Big Ten season.
This wasn’t a March version of just about any version of a Tom Izzo MSU squad. This was a team with growing pains of its own, a team that staggered through the first half and had leading-scorer Gary Harris trying to play through a shoulder injury.
Harris is a freshman. He showed up down the stretch, making all three of his free-throws after getting fouled shooting a 3-pointer with 1:04 left. That tied the game at 56, and Iowa never led again.
Iowa’s freshmen guards? Not so good.
Mike Gesell had a killer of a turnover that gave Brendan Dawson a free dunk with :48 left, and MSU was in front to stay.
The other frosh guard, Anthony Clemmons, missed two of four foul shots in the final 15 seconds, and wasn’t close on his desperation 3-point try for a tie at the buzzer.
It was the four turnovers both rookies had, though, that steamed their coach.
“Can’t turn the ball over 18 times,” McCaffery said. “They don’t change defenses. They don’t press. You can’t turn the ball over 18 times, because when you do it’s dunks and lay-ups. Here we are working hard to stop them and giving them lay-ups off turnovers. Can’t do it.”
The absence of junior guard Devyn Marble (sprained ankle) didn’t help, obviously. But that’s an excuse. Iowa’s kids didn’t get it done.
After the game, Clemmons talked about how it was “unreal” and “sometimes fun” playing opposite his Lansing (Mich.) Sexton High teammate and great friend, fellow freshman Denzel Valentine. McCaffery focused on the results.
“What I’m not happy with is four turnovers and how they happened,” the coach said, “and that’s what he has to address.
“He jacked up too many threes in the first half, and he had too many turnovers at critical times.
“Now, you could say well, we’ve got two freshman point guards out there. I don’t care. They’re not freshmen any more. I don’t care if you’re a freshman. I don’t care what grade you’re in. You cannot turn the ball over in those situations.
“Clemmons plays one spot. Get us to our stuff. That’s what I need you to do.”
I’d mention another of Iowa’s touted freshman, center Adam Woodbury, but there wasn’t much to say. He played 12 minutes, had two points, and looked like a player facing the rough-and-ready style of Michigan State’s big men for the first time.
“They played hard,” Izzo said about the Hawkeyes. “(McCaffery) is doing a great job with those young kids. … This is a good team. I talked to some guys in the league who have played them already. This is a good team, and they get up and down the floor.”
But it was Izzo’s prized freshman, Harris, who came through in Iowa’s gym. Even though he was having his shoulder checked out by a trainer during a first-half timeout, apart from his teammates were in Izzo’s huddle.
“He held his left arm around his ankles,” Izzo said. “That kid’s got a big heart.”
No one’s saying Iowa’s kids don’t have heart. They will start winning in this conference, maybe soon, maybe even more than they lose from now until the regular-season ends. It may start Sunday at Northwestern, with or without Marble, called “iffy” for that game by McCaffery.
But we live in the present, and the present has Iowa in an all-too-familiar spot. Tied for last-place in the Big Ten at 0-3, and with a long climb to get into NCAA tournament conversation.
In “Real World: Big Ten,” the season is long and the ride gets rough. The cavalcade of cupcakes that came through Carver in November and December is gone.
If Iowa continues to shoot 3-pointers so badly at home (7-of-50 in the last three games at Carver), and has to count on its bench to supply over half of its scoring, as it did Thursday?
In that case, getting out of the league’s lowlands won’t be a sure thing this season.
This program will eventually reach higher ground. But when you don’t seize opportunities like this one against Michigan State, the gratification will be delayed for a while.