IOWA CITY — The way Melsahn Basabe sees it, every game the rest of the way will come down to toughness. For Iowa that begins Sunday at Purdue.
"There’s no more physical team in the country than Purdue, so that’s going to be a battle," Basabe said. "If we go there and we want to play soft, we’re not going to be victorious. If we go there and play like we’re supposed to play, we should come out on the winning side. That’s what it all boils down to, basically, everything now is toughness.
"We reached the point where we’ve got enough scorers, got enough talent, got enough everything. Now every game, won or lost, is determined by how tough and how much desire we have."
Basabe called out his team after a 72-63 loss at No. 14 Ohio State on Tuesday. The Hawkeyes (13-6, 2-4 Big Ten) struggled to execute offensively and played soft at times while falling behind by 24 points. Iowa fought back to cut its deficit to four with 1:30 left but couldn't finish.
Toughness defines Purdue (10-9, 3-3 Big Ten) even in a transitional season. Stars that embodied the Boilermakers over the last half-decade like E'Twaun Moore, JaJuan Johnson, Robbie Hummel and Lewis Jackson are Purdue history. Past role players like senior D.J. Byrd and junior Terone Johnson now assume leadership roles. Like Iowa, Purdue starts three freshmen.
The names have changed for Purdue, but the style of play remains the same. So does the Boilermakers' trademark toughness and effort.
"If you watch the tape from last year to this year, with that aspect, no difference," Iowa Coach Fran McCaffery said.
"I think every team stresses it (effort). They are particularly good at it. It’s a mindset that appears to sort of permeate that entire roster. That’s what you want. I think we’re substantially better in that area than we’ve been, but we’ve got to get better."
Purdue has beaten Iowa 10 of the last 11, including five straight at Mackey Arena. Last year Purdue swept Iowa, but the Hawkeyes had chances to win both games.
Purdue starts four guards but Byrd can play any position and epitomizes the team's toughness stereotype. He's 6-foot-5 and can post up or hit any type of shot with range. Perhaps most impressive is his hustle. In the Big Ten opener against Illinois, Byrd fought for a loose-ball rebound and called timeout before going out of bounds. He then followed with a basket to ignite a 5-0 Boilermaker spurt into a 68-61 upset.
Byrd also is tied for third in the Big Ten for 3-pointers per game (2.4). McCaffery called Byrd "a mismatch guy" with a complete skill set.
"The thing that impresses me about him is how he plays in the last five minutes," McCaffery said. "To me that’s what makes him special.
"I just think he’s a really good player, but he becomes an elite player because of his mental toughness late. That’s a gift, and that’s what I love about him."
McCaffery said the team needs to account for Purdue's toughness with better offensive execution. In the first half of Iowa's last two Big Ten road games, the Hawkeyes have combined to shoot 18-of-60 and totaled 47 points."We’re going to need to have much more intelligent and better execution offensively to beat Purdue on the road," McCaffery said.