IOWA CITY — Three years ago then-Iowa freshman Melsahn Basabe battled Ohio State forward Jared Sullinger to a draw and expectations soared with his performance.
Their points (22 for Basabe, 24 for Sullinger) and rebounds (13 for Basabe, 12 for Sullinger) were nearly identical, but Basabe registered six blocks, including four on the current Boston Celtics forward. The game showed Basabe could compete against the nation’s best players.
That hasn’t changed for the 6-foot-7 Iowa senior, although his role and statistics show a different side. Gone are Basabe’s regular 32 minutes of action, like he played that night against Sullinger. Basabe is unlikely to average 11.0 points and 6.8 rebounds a game as he did as a freshman. But in a limited role, he’s far more likely to have a great impact on the No. 23 Hawkeyes (10-1) now than as a freshman three years ago.
“Mel was the guy that we had to get going as a freshman,” said fellow senior Devyn Marble, Basabe’s roommate for the last four years. “If we didn’t, we were in trouble. Even with Matt (Gatens), we were still in trouble if those guys weren’t producing 15-20 points a game.
“Now we’ve got 10-11 guys that have 20 on any given night. (Basabe’s) not less effective; it’s just the way our team is built now. People like to say he’s not the same but really it’s misleading and the numbers can be misleading. He’s blocking shots and he’s rebounding at a high pace. We are better when he’s doing that.”
Basabe, 23, went through one of the sport’s most difficult sophomore slumps, and it was self-inflicted. He admitted his motivation waned after his freshman year and he struggled to make an impact as a sophomore. He lost his starting job and let himself and his teammates down. Basabe then reinvested in himself, and the benefits started to grow.
He earned back his starting job as a junior. Now he’s better than ever as a senior.
Basabe averages 7.7 points and 6.3 rebounds a game in barely 17 minutes of action. Among Big Ten players he ranks 15th in rebounding and ninth in field-goal percentage. He’s the league’s active leader in rebounds with 639. But the numbers are a footnote to his on-court contributions.
Against Drake with the score tied 37-37, Basabe dished inside the post to Aaron White for an alley oop slam that put Iowa ahead. Then on a 12-0 spurt to end the first half, Basabe scored on a putback, was fouled making a basket and finished with a jumper. He had a hand in eight of Iowa’s final eight points of the half and gave the Hawkeyes an 11-point halftime lead.
“I would just like to see him be aggressive like he was (Saturday) all the time,” Iowa Coach Fran McCaffery said. “He is such a great teammate. He wants to follow the game plan, he wants to be part of a team that’s winning. Sometimes he forgets he’s a guy that we think is one of our top guys. He’s one of our guys who’s special and go play that way. That’s what he did (Saturday). He was a dominant player in the game (Saturday). I feel like he should be like that every night. and I want him to be like that every night.”
Basabe believes he has ability to affect games, and he’s matured by honing his strengths. He’s added a mid-range jumper, but mostly he focuses on his post play from putbacks and rebounds to blocking shots and defending his position. He followed up a 15-point, eight-rebound effort against Drake with 12 points and 11 rebounds against Fairleigh Dickinson. It was his 13th career double-double.
“My game has always been there; it’s just been a consistency factor,” Basabe said. “I’ve been pretty productive, although people get on me about my career. I’ve been competing with the best players in the country since day one. I think people just want to see a more consistent me. That’s what I’m focused on this year, not thinking about my freshman year because I want to be better than my freshman year. I’m older. I don’t know if I could get 12 points and 11 rebounds in 16 minutes as a freshman.
“I should be better than I was as a freshman. Everybody was telling me they need the freshman Melsahn, but I should better than that. I’m just going to remain humble and keep working hard and be consistent.”
After a career that started in the spotlight, Basabe’s now excelling in the afterglow. He is 27 points shy becoming Iowa’s 42nd 1,000-point scorer and with Marble and White commanding attention, it seems Basabe has become a secondary figure for opponents. But that’s only in perception.
“I don’t feel like a forgotten man, he said. “If anything I’ve forgotten myself by not playing hard all the time. But I don’t want that to be an issue this year.
“I feel like it is my responsibility that I can still be the focus if I make myself the focus. Not so much as coach having to hand me the ball, but I feel like out of the post players I should be one of the more dominant players.”
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