IOWA CITY -- The negatives have blended together into a collage of disappointment for the Iowa basketball team.
Another loss -- Iowa's fifth in the last six games -- this time 66-63 to Illinois on Saturday. Another blown halftime lead, their fourth straight. Iowa players admit the team wasn't ready to play, just as they said after home losses to Wisconsin and Ohio State. Iowa Coach Fran McCaffery chided his team for its lack of mental toughness six weeks ago and now uses a similar, but equally rattling description.
"I think we're a little bit fragile," Iowa Coach Fran McCaffery said. "I think that's safe to say."
Slightly more than two weeks ago No. 25 Iowa was one game behind Michigan and Michigan State in the Big Ten standings. Now, five losses in six games, the Hawkeyes have limped to the regular-season finish line equaling last year's record of 20-11 overall and 9-9 in the Big Ten. Less than two months ago Iowa was ranked No. 10 nationally. Less than two weeks ago Iowa hadn't lost more than one game consecutively. Now the Hawkeyes are free-falling out of the national rankings and down line-after-line in NCAA tournament brackets.
"I donít know, man," Iowa junior Aaron White said. "Weíve got to pick it up. Weíve got to get back to where we were. Weíre letting this thing slide too much. Obviously going into this stretch we hadnít lost two in a row. Now weíve lost five of the past six.
"I donít have a whole grasp of what everyoneís feeling, but me personally, Iím frustrated. Iím confused at why we arenít playing like we were at the beginning of the year. Not even the beginning of the year, two and a half, three weeks ago. Got to play with a sense of urgency. Got to play better defensively. Got to pick it up, man."
Whether it's a lack of leadership, preparedness, talent toughness or accountability, Iowa's recent drop coincides with the start of second halves. The Hawkeyes have led at halftime in each of its last three games. Each time Iowa's players have come out flat, while their opponents immediately execute.
Iowa led Illinois 34-29 at halftime Saturday. The Fighting Illini opened with an 8-2 run in the first 1:33 to retake the lead. Thursday, Iowa led Michigan State 41-39, but gave up a 9-0 run to start the half and trail 48-41. Even in Iowa's win against Purdue, the Hawkeyes allowed a 50-37 halftime lead evaporate into a 52-49 lead barely 4 minutes into the second half. All three opponent spurts came before the first media timeout.
"Thatís not acceptable," White said.
Iowa's opponents have won the rebounding battle in five of the last six games. Only three times in the first 25 games did Iowa lose that statistic. Before losing to Wisconsin, Iowa's rebounding margin was plus-8.2 in Big Ten play. The Hawkeyes finished the Big Ten at plus-5.0.
"We were killing people on the glass and in this stretch we havenít been," White said. "Very characteristic of our team. Something we have to turn around."
Iowa's defensive lapses the last month also were perplexing. Before the run, Iowa ranked third in the Big Ten in defensive field-goal percentage at 41.3. Iowa finished 11th in the Big Ten at 44.8 percent.
Many of those shortcomings were apparent at end-of-clock situations. Illinois' Jon Ekey extended Iowa's late-clock woes by hitting the game-winning 3-pointer with .5 seconds left to win Saturday night.
"Not another team gives up as many points as we do in the last two or three seconds of the shot clock," White said. "Itís ridiculous. Itís something weíve got to fix.
"Weíve got to play through the end of each possession, the end of the shot clock, the end of the game. Play for 40 minutes rather than eight-minute spurts or two-minute spurts."
Despite the recent failures, Iowa still is likely to clinch its first NCAA tournament berth in eight seasons. But that accomplishment has no joy for anyone.
"I'm very pleased with a lot of the things that we've done," McCaffery said. "But it's a long journey, and you have great points and you have mediocre points. And you have areas where you go in the other direction and you've just got to keep working."
"I donít know how guys are doing individually. Iím sure some people are a little pressed, I could say," Iowa senior Devyn Marble said. "Just keeping those guys confident and letting them realize how good of a team weíve been up to this point. Itís been a tough almost month but the previous three or four (months), however long the season was, we played very well and showed them how good weíre capable of being."
2. Senior night. The pregame ovations were loud for Iowa's four seniors, but the final result dulled any lasting memories. So did their performances in the game.
Marble finished his home career with eight points, the only time this Big Ten season he didn't score in double figures. He was limited in the first half because of foul trouble and sank just 3 of 11 shots. Melsahn Basabe scored six points but was outworked defensively and played only 14 minutes. Zach McCabe knocked down his only shot -- fittingly a 3-pointer -- but played just seven minutes and had two turnovers.
Afterward Marble just shrugged his shoulders about his final game at Carver-Hawkeye Arena.
"I really donít want to say I could care less about it, but the fact it was my last game and we lost it here ... but itís just a loss in general," Marble said. "Itís not about me or Mel or Zach our last game in here; thatís not what this is about. This isnít what the season comes down to. Iís not our goal to go the whole season and win this game. In the large picture, we wanted to win, just from the standpoint weíve been trying to stop the bleeding."
McCabe became the all-time leader in games played at Iowa with 135. He has 855 points in his Iowa career. Basabe is tied for 28th in Iowa history with Chris Kingsbury and Michael Payne with 1,118 points. Marble ranks sixth with 1,662, just 13 behind Ronnie Lester for fifth all-time.
3. Case for optimism. It's easy to get down on this team after the last month, and rightly so. But Iowa is not unique in its struggles this year.
Wisconsin had its own stretch of futility where it lost five of six, including three straight at home. One of those losses came to Northwestern by nine points. The Wildcats never had beaten the Badgers at the Kohl Center.
Before stopping Iowa at the Breslin Center (a guarantee like death and taxes), Michigan State was 4-6 in a stretch where it lost consecutive home games to Illinois and Nebraska. Ohio State lost four straight and five over six earlier this season. Penn State also swept the Buckeyes, a first since 1998.
Nebraska opened Big Ten play with four consecutive losses, and were beaten by Ohio State by 31 and Michigan by 29 earlier this year. Even outright champion Michigan suffered three double-digit defeats.
All of this information is anecdotal and has no direct bearing on Iowa's situation. But it bears mentioning that basketball players can put losses in the rear view mirror more easily than fans. I highly doubt any of the players sat at home Saturday night screaming "Why" like Nancy Kerrigan after she was attacked in 1994.
The fact is Iowa is in a slump. But this is the same team that walloped Michigan by 18 points a few weeks ago. No team has beaten Iowa by more than 10 points, and that happened just once. If they get their heads right, it's possible they could make a run in either the Big Ten or NCAA tournaments. Don't get me wrong, this team is struggling. But it also has potential to turn everything around like its Big Ten brethren. Don't underestimate the power of resiliency in youth, whether it's in basketball or life.