CHICAGO — A shot away. A win away. A season away.
Friday night was the story of Iowa basketball 2012-2013 in a microcosm.
The Hawkeyes played hard, played so very hard against Michigan State. They defended, defended so sternly and so well. But against a premier Big Ten team, a winnable game got away. Again.
Thirty fine minutes were 10 too few for the Hawkeyes. Composure dribbled away from them from the 10-minute mark of the second half until a heck of a comeback try in the last two minutes. But it ended with yet another last-gasp 3-pointer, this one from Devyn Marble. Like Josh Oglesby's at Wisconsin, Marble's shot looked like it might go in … but didn't.
“This team deserved a better fate tonight,” dejected Iowa coach Fran McCaffery said. You don’t need tea leaves to know he was talking about the way the game was officiated.
After the press conference in the Iowa dressing room, Tom Kakert of HawkeyeReport.com asked McCaffery if he thought Hawkeye Aaron White fouled Gary Harris on the Spartan's jump shot with 29 seconds left and MSU up 57-56.
"What do you think?" McCaffery asked.
"No," Kakert replied.
"Smart man," said the coach.
Harris made both free throws to force Iowa to go for a tying 3-pointer. If that had been ruled a block, well, "if' is the operative word of this season.
OK, you can say every critical thing you want about the refs in MSU’s 59-56 win in this Big Ten tournament quarterfinal brawl, and you might be justified. McCaffery wasn't what you would call fond of official Ted Valentine before this game. Now? Please don't invite McCaffery to a dinner party and have Valentine as a surprise guest.
Still, Iowa had 19 turnovers and Michigan State had 16 offensive rebounds to Iowa's seven. Those two things, at least, weren't on the officials. As for the intensity that made the cavernous United Center sound downright collegiate, give both teams credit.
“That had to be one of the most-physical games I ever played in,” said Spartan guard Keith Appling. Marble said almost the exact same thing.
Against lesser and less-hardened foes, Iowa could have withstood what came at them. But MSU, befuddled by the Hawkeyes for much of the game, played like a team that isn’t big on retreat or surrender. Nor is Iowa.
If this loss keeps the Hawkeyes out of the NCAA tourney as many suspect, it’s a shame. This is a squad that would bring ferocity, competitiveness and considerable talent to the Big Dance.
But there are only so many at-large slots to fill, and 21-12 Iowa is a face in the at-large crowd.
Maybe all the bracketologists from Bracketville, or wherever those nerds live, are mistaken. Still, can everyone who calculates and monitors RPIs and BPIs and SOSs and all the tools in their toolboxes be wrong?
Well, of course. But it seems unlikely barring a Selection Sunday surprise, the Hawkeyes will be on the outside of the NCAAs looking in for the seventh-straight season. Michigan State coach Tom Izzo thinks that would be flat-out wrong.
“They took supposedly a Top Ten team, which I’m not sure we were tonight, to the wire,” Izzo said. “I’m not begging for them, but I think (McCaffery) is a hell of a coach, and they’ve gotten better.
“In general, Iowa outworked us for three-fourths of that game and deserved to be in the position they were in. ... I definitely believe Iowa’s a team that deserves to be in the tournament.”
Oh, what might have been. A 30-20 halftime lead. A 47-35 advantage with 10 minutes left. That defense.
What a golden opportunity for Iowa to get its most-important basketball victory since it defeated Ohio State in the championship game of the 2006 Big Ten tourney.
If the NCAA selection committee shuts out the Hawkeyes, their next game will be at home next week in the NIT.
“I think it’s clear with what we have done that we should be in the NCAA tournament,” McCaffery said.
“Wherever we play," White said, "we’re going to play our tails off next week.”
Why would they stop now?