IOWA CITY -- Marching orders come near the end of basketball practice, when the sweat pours like rain and a player’s breath becomes labored.
Two minutes left. Black team down three points. Gold team on the free-throw line. The whistle blows.
“Then you’ll reverse it and it’s the other way around, and you’ll have an eight-minute scrimmage,” Iowa junior forward Aaron White said.
With 93 percent of their scoring returning from a team that won 25 games, Iowa didn’t need to install a new system. Instead the team focused on those late-game situations to prevent last season’s heartbreak.
Iowa finished 4-8 last year in games against Big Ten opponents decided by single digits. Four times the Hawkeyes lost when leading with two minutes to go. That doesn’t count the team blowing a 19-point advantage at Nebraska.
“It’s just a learning experience to get ready for a game, pressure situations, something we were in last year,” Iowa junior center Gabe Olaseni said. “We lost a lot of close games. So we’re just trying to get the angst out of our system to be able to execute down the stretch.
“We do it every day at the end of practice so the fatigue factor is there. We just have to focus in at the task at hand, which is what the coaches emphasize every day.”
Last year’s gory details include a three-point home loss to Michigan State, where Iowa led by four inside of two minutes. The Spartans were 7 of 7 from the free-throw line, and Iowa was 4 of 8. At Purdue, Iowa blew a three-point lead but ran a last-second play for guard Devyn Marble. His shot rattled in and out and sent the game to overtime.
At Wisconsin, Iowa led by two and lost by four in double overtime. Iowa missed 14 of 19 shots in the last two minutes and both overtimes. The Badgers knocked down 13 of 14 free throws, while the Hawkeyes sank just 3 of 7. Wisconsin’s Traevon Jackson hit a 3-pointer with seconds left in regulation, and Josh Oglesby rattles in and out for Iowa at the final second.
The Hawkeyes led Minnesota 59-55 with two minutes left only to surrender the game’s final seven points. An Iowa turnover followed by Austin Hollins’ contested 3-pointer with 11 seconds left gave the Gophers the win.
“You might run the play perfectly and somebody still has to make a shot, and you might run a play that breaks down and the guy goes and makes a shot anyway. That’s just basketball,” Iowa Coach Fran McCaffery said. “But I think if you constantly get your guys thinking time and score, what are we in, what are we running ...?”
The disparity between Iowa and its opponents was stark. In the final two minutes or overtime of those 12 games, Iowa shot 32.1 percent from the field and 60.9 percent from the free-throw line. Iowa’s opponents hit 51.6 percent from the floor and 79.3 percent from the line. The Hawkeyes were outscored 118-82.
Thus, the 4-8 record in those games and no NCAA tournament berth. Both ends of the court failed in those situations, not just offense, McCaffery said. That’s why practice is geared toward neutralizing Iowa’s late-game drama.
“You’re just kind of learning,” White said. “No, there’s not 15,000 people screaming at you, there’s not the pressure that’s in a game. But you’re still learning what you’re going to do late game.”
So loss prevention has its place in Iowa’s new practice gym. It’s better to learn those lessons in late October than on a random February evening. That’s the goal, anyway.
“You work on situations all the time, and you still see mistakes, and you still see breakdowns,” McCaffery said. “That’s part of it. But I think the more you do it, the better chance you have to be successful in those situations when the games come. There’s no guarantee that we’re going to work on situations and therefore we’re going to be perfect. It’s not going to happen.”
“That’s the biggest step forward for us, is the mental toughness to close out the close games and I think they’re going about it in a good way and put us in those situations,” White said.