MADISON, Wis. – Aaron White never stopped fidgeting during a postgame interview here Wednesday night.
His words were fairly unemotional. But the agitated look on his face and the constant back-and-forth rocking he did with his back to a wall suggested he was frustrated, pained, upset.
“Every game it’s a shot here or there, it’s a turnover here or there,” the Iowa sophomore basketball player said.
“Man, we’re right there. We play every team toe to toe. The only game we weren’t in was probably the second half at Michigan. Other than that, we’ve had Top 20 teams on the ropes. We just couldn’t close ‘em.”
White is a competitor, and competitors don’t focus on long-term visions. They want to win now. The Hawkeyes aren’t winning now, and it’s maddening to them and their fans.
Iowa’s 74-70 double-overtime loss at Wisconsin Wednesday was the rotten cherry on a melted sundae. Oh, what might have been. Again.
The Big Ten tally is now three wins, seven losses, and a margin-for-error of making the NCAA tournament that has been whittled to a nub. Three losses by three points, two by four points. A single-overtime failure. And now a double-overtime defeat.
The end of regulation Wednesday was a cruel joke for the visitors. With 20 seconds left and his team down 58-55, Badger guard Traevon Jackson put up an ugly 3-pointer. It hit the right side of the rim, somehow bounced up and over the rim and off the backboard, and caromed straight through the net to tie the game.
“Home-court roll,” Iowa’s Josh Oglesby later said with a mournful laugh.
Oglesby took a fall-away 3-pointer that would have closed the game out in unforgettably positive style for the Hawkeyes. It went halfway down the basket. It rattled out.
White had been alone under the basket, but time was ticking away and Oglesby said he didn’t want to risk turning the ball over with a pass. Reasonable enough. Plus, that was a good-looking shot. Until it wasn’t.
There’s a natural in-the-moment inclination to complain about this team’s habit of not finishing off games. Or of the freezeup in Devyn Marble’s play, his inability to be the scorer he once was and is needed to be. Or of the team’s continuing poor perimeter shooting.
But I saw Iowa’s 62-59 Sunday loss to Minnesota on television and then covered Wednesday’s game in person, and I liked both games. This has been the best Hawkeyes basketball in seven years.
Sure, they had their first-half dry spells in both games. Sure, it’s a flawed squad playing in the one Big Ten season of the last 20 in which flaws are the most-exposed.
But let’s look at who Iowa played this week and since Dec. 31, and where it played them. Sunday, the Hawkeyes took Minnesota, a team ranked in the Top Ten as recently as three weeks ago, to the final possession in Williams Arena.
Wednesday, the Hawkeyes went double-OT against a Wisconsin team that is 178-17 at the Kohl Center over the last 12 seasons. And did so after scraping themselves off the emotional carpet very quickly after that Minnesota game.
I expected the Hawkeyes to be down and the Badgers to be up. Instead, Iowa took that game to Wisconsin. No, it didn’t win. Yes, it kicked away chances. But it battled.
After a while, you want more than “good try.” Some, myself included, thought this team had the goods to make that jump to a winning conference season. It’s a big leap from 3-7 to 10-8.
But if you aren’t seeing this program as a work-in-progress that is actually progressing, you’re missing something.
Adam Woodbury, Mike Gesell and Anthony Clemmons are freshmen with the right stuff. The first lap around the Big Ten is harder on centers and ball-handling guards than any other freshmen. Those guys have taken their lumps, but they aren’t buckling.
Woodbury’s offense is limited right now, but that will come. He’s doing some good things. Like Gesell and Clemmons, his spirit hasn’t seemed to wane in what could have felt like a long winter.
Even White has had ebbs and flows lately. But he was big down the stretch Wednesday, and is someone no Big Ten team wouldn’t want on its side. Opposing coaches rave about him.
Sophomore Oglesby has become a popular whipping boy for fans, but he may be one or two hot streaks from busting out and emerging as a difference-maker. The fact he was unafraid to pop in a 3-pointer to open the first overtime’s scoring after missing that trey at the end of regulation is a good sign.
The way upperclassmen Melsahn Basabe, Zach McCabe and Eric May have played this season in reserve roles – though Basabe now starts – says something about them and their coaches. Backup center Gabe Olaseni is becoming a genuine asset.
Next year, when the team loses only May, Fran McCaffery can send waves of talent after teams much like Tom Davis did with his best Iowa squads. Jarrod Uthoff will be a wing player who could be a genuine difference-maker, a player with an inside-outside offensive game and a passion for rebounding.
Incoming freshman Peter Jok of West Des Moines Valley is a 6-foot-6 guard who has an excellent jumper and can score off the dribble. He is averaging 41.2 percent from 3-point range and is 100-of-107 from the foul line.
A lot of great talent will depart the Big Ten after this season. However, Iowa will cling to almost all of its players, and they’ll be wiser and better than now. Better endings are coming.