IOWA CITY — Iowa’s Aaron White has grown tired of losing winnable games, and he said so earlier this week.
It grinds at the junior forward that his team continues to lead high-caliber opponents in tough environments only to fall apart at key moments. Yes, his squad is 13-3 and ranked in both polls, but Iowa’s clock has expired on moral victories. It’s all about putting those teams away.
“It’s not easy to define but it’s a certain level of understanding that you play those games and you expect to win them,” White said. “You don’t go in there playing not to lose or playing hoping to win — those are losers’ mentalities. You go in expecting to win and realizing that you’ve got a good enough team to beat teams like that.”
Failing to close out road games galls the players, coaches and fans. Last year, Iowa (2-1 in Big Ten) lost games late at Wisconsin, Nebraska, Purdue and Minnesota and blew a double-digit lead against Michigan State in the Big Ten Tournament.
Iowa led by more than 10 points in each of its three losses this year. Those three teams — Wisconsin, Iowa State, Villanova — enter the weekend ranked in the nation’s top 10 and have a combined record of 44-1. Villanova used a 3-point barrage to chop Iowa’s 12-point second-half lead and ultimately prevail in overtime at Battle 4 Atlantis. The Hawkeyes led Iowa State by five points with 89 seconds left, only to miss four of five free throws and lose 85-82 at Hilton Coliseum.
Last Sunday, Iowa led No. 4 Wisconsin by 11 at halftime in Madison. The Hawkeyes’ lead evaporated midway through the second half in part because of a pair of technicals called on Coach Fran McCaffery. The Badgers won 75-71.
Missed free throws. Blown defensive assignments. Losing your cool. All highlight the small difference between success and failure for Iowa in big games.
“I think we’re close. We are close,” Iowa senior Devyn Marble said. “We’ve lost to three top-10 programs that have a combined one loss. That’s crazy to me when you look at it, especially when you feel like you had each of the three teams. So it makes you think where you could possibly be right now. But from that standpoint, it’s good for us to expect to win. We expect to win. I think it’s just about closing games out.”
When Marble and Melsahn Basabe were freshmen, hanging with good opponents was celebrated, and the occasional upset sent Carver-Hawkeye Arena into euphoria.
But that was during an 11-win season in McCaffery’s inaugural season, one year removed from historic beatings to rivals Minnesota and Wisconsin. Marble and Basabe fought to inject credibility into a moribund program. A 20-point win against Michigan State and a home upset of No. 6 Purdue ignited passions into a dormant fan base.
Two consecutive seasons of seven-win increases has Iowa at the precipice of Big Ten contention.
“Now it’s a different type of criticism,” Basabe said. “It’s not so much an underdog where everybody’s happy for you. Now it’s like you’ve got to take care of business. You’ve got to expect that. When I first got here, nobody expected anything.”
Iowa’s expectations now are to win, the same as Ohio State. The No. 3-ranked Buckeyes (15-1, 2-1) scrapped from 17 points down to force overtime at Michigan State. In December, OSU stunned Notre Dame in the final minute, rallying from an eight-point deficit in a 64-61 win.
The Buckeyes’ personnel and emphasis over the years have changed. No longer do they possess an All-American scorer, but the swagger of success remains.
“They come out knowing they’re going to win,” Marble said. “They expect to win. You’ve got to come out when you play them, you can’t hope to be in the game or hope to win. You’ve got to play expecting to win. So we’ve got to make sure we match their mindset in that aspect of the game.
“They just expect to win, no matter who’s across from them,” White said. “It doesn’t matter if the other team has more talent than them.”
Other than sustained success, what does Iowa need to match Ohio State’s mental toughness? The concept is simple — closing out opponents — but the application is more difficult and semi-nebulous. It’s as much about getting past the mental blocks as making free throws, rebounding and hitting open shots.
“It is just going to come down to desire,” Basabe said. “Ohio State, Michigan State, those teams are warriors, and they just battle and it doesn’t come down to Xs and Os and what your coach is drawing up. It comes down to you just playing all out and going for blood and who wants it more, who wants it more for their team and their coach and their school. Who wants it more for themselves, that’s what it’s going to come down to.”