IOWA CITY -- At the surface, Iowa's 79-74 loss to No. 18 Wisconsin on Saturday appears just like every other close Big Ten defeat over the last two seasons. While the frustration is comparable, the evidence shows a completely different year-over-year story.
In single-digit games against Big Ten competition the last two years, Iowa is 5-13. This year's Hawkeyes are 1-5. Last year's collapses were filled with four blown leads in the final two minutes. This year, Hawkeyes have lost just one game they've led entering the final two minutes, and that was a one-point advantage Saturday.
A year ago Iowa's late-game statistics were atrocious. In the last two minutes or overtime, the No. 15-ranked Hawkeyes (19-7, 8-5 Big Ten) made 61 percent from the free-throw line while opponents sank nearly 80 percent of their free throws. Iowa was 32.1 percent from the floor, while opponents knocked down 51.6 percent of their shots. The numbers speak for themselves.
This year, Iowa is shooting 38 percent from the floor during the final two minutes or overtime, while opponents score at a 35 percent clip. The Hawkeyes have hit 77 percent of its free throws, while opponents are at 87.1 percent.
Iowa has lost home games to Michigan State, Ohio State and Wisconsin this year. When asked if there's a pattern to those defeats, Iowa Coach Fran McCaffery said, "Yeah, we lost to three good teams."
Iowa guard Josh Oglesby, who scored 17 points, added, "I don’t think there’s a reason" about the commonality of those losses.
The Big Ten losses this year have come down to intangibles and timing, especially in the clutch. Iowa was outplayed at Michigan and at home against Ohio State. McCaffery's ejection at Wisconsin changed the game's dynamic. In a 71-69 overtime loss to Michigan State, Iowa played for the win at the end of regulation, but Devyn Marble missed his shot and Melsahn Basabe couldn't score on the putback.
Saturday, Iowa trailed Wisconsin by 10 in the first half, crawled back and led by one point with 1 minute to go. The Badgers scored on their final four possessions, while Iowa committed a turnover in the paint, then whiffed on a 3-point attempt. As much as offense was an issue, Iowa's defense was equally culpable.
"We just couldn’t get a stop at the end," Marble said. "They were able to get the stops they needed and we weren’t able to. That’s what it boiled down to."
Iowa is the only Big Ten team not to lose a league game this year by more than single digits. But that's a double-edged statistic, especially when the team holds a 1-5 record in those Big Ten games. Entering Sunday's action, every other team in the Big Ten's upper division had won at least four single-digit league contests.
"I think in the Big Ten, everyone’s good," Iowa guard Mike Gesell said. "Every time you step on the floor, you’re going to be in a battle. So that’s why you see those close games."
Maybe, but losing those tight games takes an emotional toll.
"We’re usually good at just moving on," said McCabe, who missed a 3-point attempt with 15 seconds left that could have tied the game. "Coach helps us with that. But sometimes losses like this can kind of linger.
"We’ve just got to stay together, take one game at a time and just learn from this game."
2. Last-minute sequence. It's easy to magnify the last-minute possessions in wins and losses, but those also are the plays that decide outcomes. There were three big sequences inside the game's final minute, and Wisconsin won all three possessions to ultimately take the game.
A. After a Josh Oglesby jumper with 1 minute left gave Iowa a 72-71 lead, Wisconsin Coach Bo Ryan called timeout with 58.4 seconds left. Wisconsin guard Josh Gasser possessed the ball around 28 feet from the basket and was defended by Aaron White. Wisconsin center Frank Kaminsky attempted a ball screen, but Iowa center Gabe Olaseni shaded it correctly to prevent Gasser from driving. But with every Iowa player defending the perimeter, Kaminsky slipped around White and got to the paint before Olaseni could catch up. Gasser passed to Kaminsky, who scored to put the Badgers ahead 73-72 with 37.2 seconds left.
B. After an Iowa timeout, 32.5 seconds remained with 31 seconds on the shot clock. Iowa Coach Fran McCaffery declined to milk the clock for a final shot and gave guard Devyn Marble the green light if he saw an opening. The out-of-bounds play was designed to find White open under the basket. White, who's 6-foot-9, posted up left of the basket on Gasser, who's 6-3. That's a winnable matchup for Iowa. Marble drove left, but was double-teamed by Wisconsin point guard Traevon Jackson and Kaminsky, who offered help. White at first had position on Gasser, then screened Gasser to provide Marble a lane. However Kaminsky held terrific position and prevented a clear path to the basket. Marble, perhaps a little impatient, still attempted a run at the basket, but Kaminsky stripped him. Olaseni briefly held the loose ball but it rolled to Kaminsky, who immediately was fouled.
"We were trying to get the ball to Whitey, but they kind of played that," Marble said. "I thought Whitey had a seal that I could get around and he just swiped down and I couldn’t go any farther past that."
C. After Kaminsky's free throws, Iowa trailed 75-72 with 24.5 seconds left. Iowa Coach Fran McCaffery inserted Zach McCabe for Olaseni. Iowa had three options at that point. One, get the ball to the red-hot Oglesby, but he was covered on the right wing. Two, get the ball to McCabe off a double-screen. Three, let Marble make a play. McCabe was wide open at the top of the key, and he got the ball in perfect shooting position. But as he released, the ball slipped from his hands and fell way short.
"I knew they were going to be chasing me," Oglesby said. "I made my last couple of shots. (McCabe's) a good shooter. He had a good look."
"That was probably the best we’d run it," a dejected McCabe said afterward. "It was the right shot; it just slipped out of my hands."
"That was an option that we liked, and we thought he would be able ... yeah," McCaffery said.
3. Redefining goals. Iowa had an opportunity to stay in Big Ten contention with a win against Wisconsin. Iowa entered the day just one game behind Big Ten co-leaders Michigan and Michigan State in the loss column. With a trip to East Lansing in 11 days, Iowa was on the cusp of fighting for a Big Ten title.
Instead with the loss, Iowa's regular-season title hopes are virtually nonexistent. Ohio State's win against Minnesota puts the Hawkeyes only one-half game ahead of the Buckeyes for the Big Ten Tournament's all-important fourth seed and first-round bye.
"This is a disappointing loss for Iowa," ESPN analyst and former Iowa assistant Bruce Pearl said following the game. "Iowa has lost at home to Michigan State, they’ve lost at home to Ohio State and now here to Wisconsin. Iowa has not won a Big Ten regular-season championship since 1979, and that was shared by Purdue and Magic Johnson of Michigan State. There’s a lot on the line. It’s not too much to ask this team to hold serve at home. They got outplayed, they got out-hustled by a really good Wisconsin team, but that’s a disappointing loss for Iowa."
The loss also has big-picture ramifications. With a regular-season sweep over Iowa, Wisconsin now has the edge for NCAA tournament seeding and locations. It's possible a Big Ten squad or two could land in Milwaukee for the first weekend, which is close enough to drive for a fan base. Right now Michigan, Michigan State and Wisconsin sit ahead of Iowa on that list.
The Hawkeyes clearly are an NCAA tournament team and probably will get a decent seed. But a loss at home against Wisconsin, could force the team to play their first NCAA games in Spokane or San Antonio.