BLOOMINGTON, Ind. — Tom Crean was selling Iowa as an NCAA tournament team Saturday night. No one who watched the first-half of the Hawkeyes’ 73-60 loss to Indiana was buying.
“Certain teams should get exclusion from the bubble, and Iowa’s one of them,” Crean said, citing the Big Ten’s overall strength as something for which the Hawkeyes should receive extra credit.
“Nobody wants to (play) them in the NCAA tournament. They’re really good.”
Except ... they’re not. They don’t quit. They defend. They play with energy and desire. But they aren’t “really good.”
Exhibits A, B and C are the first-half at Purdue, the second-half at Nebraska, and Saturday’s first-half here. In those, Iowa tallied 16, 19 and 14 points, respectively.
If one of the three is somewhat forgivable, it’s the first-half here. The Hoosiers, for those who are paying attention, have all the talent a fan base could reasonably desire. It’s America’s top-ranked team, at least until the next polls come out on Monday.
The Hoosiers didn’t operate at championship-speed Saturday, but did play the kind of defense you associate with Big Ten title-winners. Which the Hoosiers will be for the first time since 2002 if they win one of their final two regular-season games.
Everyone knew in November and on Saturday afternoon that the Hawkeyes would have a hard, hard time getting a win in Assembly Hall. The way they played offensively in the first half all but assured it wasn’t going to happen.
It was Indiana 26-14 at halftime, and the Hawkeyes’ had a long grocery list of bad offensive items.
They had as many turnovers as points in the half, and only two fewer fouls. They shot 29 percent from the field, made none of their five 3-pointers, and none of their three free throws.
“I wouldn’t call it a freeze-up,” Iowa coach Fran McCaffery said. “It was a really good defensive effort by a good defensive team.”
It was that, for sure, but it also was 14 points. For the Hawkeyes to cross the next bridge as a program, that have to stop going into 20-minute offensive blackouts on the road in this league.
“We kind of played for them not to go on a run,” Iowa’s Aaron White said. “We played good defense, holding them to 26. But (the offense) was east/west instead of north/south and us attacking.”
It’s a stretch to say the Hoosiers were there for the taking. They missed plenty of layups and foul shots in the first-half themselves, and almost matched Iowa’s foul trouble in a game that featured overheated officiating.
The Hawkeyes offered plenty of pushback in the second half, but the hole was too deep to escape against a first-rate opponent on the road. Iowa had way too many turnovers, too many fouls, too much errant shooting. Its offensive flow couldn’t honestly be called a flow.
McCaffery doesn’t talk NCAAs, and understandably so. This is a team that needs to play one possession at a time, let alone one game at a time. But at 18-11 overall, 7-9 in the Big Ten, the demands are clear. Beat Illinois and Nebraska at home, win at least two games in the Big Ten tourney and maybe even three.
That would be a tall order for a team that had found its mojo by Game 29, let alone one that is still trying to establish itself offensively. Won-lost record aside, McCaffery says he’s OK with his guys’ progression.
“Yeah, because I challenged this team at the start of the year to make changes defensively,” he said.
“This team has defended. This team has battled on the glass. ... That’s kept us in every game, defense, rebounding and toughness. So I’m proud of them for that.”
In this conference this year, however, you need consistent offensive firepower to play your way past enough teams to get to the only postseason tournament that matters. The Hawkeyes don’t have it. They need to find it fast, because its asking way too much to beat one of the Big Ten’s best in Chicago on defense alone.
“We’re a very talented team,” said Iowa senior Eric May, who gave his team 30 good minutes here. “We can do some really big things.”It has to start Tuesday in Carver-Hawkeye against Illinois. It must.