This time, Iowa's 9-9 comes with no finishing kick

Home loss to Illinois is Hawkeyes' latest late-season indignity

Published: March 9 2014 | 11:37 am - Updated: 1 April 2014 | 9:21 am in

IOWA CITY -- The odds a team would play 30 regular-season basketball games and end up with the same overall and conference records two straight years are long.

But there's no more regular-season left, and the fact will never change that Iowa was 20-11 and 9-9 for a second-straight year as it enters the Big Ten tournament.

What will change, however, is that this season's Hawkeyes are apparently still headed to the NCAA tourney though they have stopped playing like an NCAA-worthy team, while last season's club didn't make it to the Big Dance despite looking like it belonged there.

Which makes this statement more than obvious:  Last season's team -- so far -- provided much more satisfaction to its fans and itself than this season's.

The charge to the NIT finals last year, with four straight double-digit wins including two over ACC teams, was the lasting memory that did the most to build high hopes for this season's Hawkeyes. But that team also was a squad that got better as the Big Ten season grew older, winning six of its final eight games in league play. It took a gut-buster of a Big Ten tourney quarterfinal loss to Michigan State to keep the Hawkeyes out of the NCAAs.

This season's team has been sliding down the NCAA's bracket as if it were ice-coated, dropping five of its last six games and looking less and less sure of itself as the postseason got closer.

You can dissect the Hawkeyes' shortcomings all the way from Iowa City to Indianapolis and probably still be talking about them by the time you reach Bankers Life Fieldhouse for Thursday's play-in game.

It's the eighth-straight year the Hawkeyes have to play on Thursday, by the way, and the seventh-straight season they haven't posted a winning record in league play. The slogan "Rising" that the Iowa athletic department attached to the team for this season will forever ring hollow unless something special happens between now and Iowa's final postseason game.

As for why this season has unraveled, pick a reason, any reason. The defense has loosened, there aren't enough (or occasionally, any) go-to guys down the stretch, the once-heralded rebounding stopped being something worth heralding, the team routinely gets off to slow starts in the second half, yadda, yadda, yadda.

When Iowa Coach Fran McCaffery was wiling to concede "I think we're a little bit fragile," after Saturday's 66-63 loss to Illinois in Carver-Hawkeye Arena that broke the Hawkeyes' streak of 30 straight home wins over unranked opponents, you know they're fragile indeed.

College basketball teams are fragile by nature, but recent Iowa opponents that were pretty wobbly themselves have gotten mentally refreshed once they got into games with the Hawkeyes. That's Minnesota, Indiana, Michigan State, and now Illinois. The Illini were a few days removed from the worst home loss in the 51-year history of their arena, an 84-53 mauling at the hands of Michigan. They blasted to a 20-6 lead.

But Indiana made its first nine shots and zoomed to an early 10-point lead at Michigan hours before the Illinois-Iowa game. The Wolverines snapped back and won. Iowa snapped back against Illinois, too. All the way back and more, for a 34-29 halftime lead.

McCaffery said the game was lost in that 20-6 black hole, but it wasn't. It was lost in the second half when the Illini peeled off 11 straight points for a 59-54 lead. Iowa did come back to tie the game, and it was tied from when there were 42 seconds remaining until Jon Ekey's deep 3-pointer split the net with a half-second left. A Mike Gesell foul extended that Illinois position, allowing the Illini to wait until the last seconds to try to break the tie.

Ekey matched his Big Ten-high of 12 points. Center Nnanna Egwu of Illinois matched his season-high of 14 points. The fact so many players have scaled scoring peaks this late in the season (Austin Hollins, Will Sheehey and others) against the Hawkeyes says something unkind, too.

"I think the Big Ten tourney is exactly what we need," Devyn Marble said, "something refreshing, the start of a new season."

Marble called his team's woes "very easily correctable. We have to stay tough, stay confident, take criticism in stride from our coaching staff and make the most of it. Play in the moment. Quit worrying about what's coming down around you."

"We've got no other option but to be confident," said Iowa center Adam Woodbury, who had his own season-high Saturday with 11 points. Woodbury hasn't gone into any shells in his sophomore season when many in his situation might have.

"We've got to regroup and get back to what we were doing before," Woodbury said. "We've got the size, the athleticism, speed and power to do what we need to do, but I think it's a mentality issue right now with us."

Asked if his team will go to Indy hungry, Woodbury replied "We haven't won anything yet, so I don't think we can have anything but to be hungry. ... At the end of the day, it matters what you do in March."

But you give yourself a better chance for success in March if you play well down the stretch in the regular season.

It's sort of amazing how one shot, one play, one decision here or there can be.

If Naz Long doesn't swish his last-second bomb to send Iowa State into overtime against Oklahoma State, the Cyclones take a 3-game losing streak and self-doubt to Kansas City for the Big 12 tourney. If Ekey doesn't make his last-second bomb and Illinois-Iowa had gone to overtime, the Hawkeyes have a decent chance of winning that game and heading to Indy feeling like they withstood a hard challenge and toughed it out.

But players and teams also practice and prepare all season to get to a place where they feel good about taking such a shot. They also practice and prepare all season to become defensively sound enough to make an opponent's desperation shot as difficult as possible.

How does "fragile" turn back into confident and aggressive in time to make an impact this week and next? Your guess is as good as mine.

Maybe the narrative will change this week and next. It's been known to happen in this sport. The NCAA tourney has seen many teams that wheezed to the finish line of the regular-season only to breathe fire in the big tournament.

But that 9-9 stays in the books. One of these years, Iowa will have a winning Big Ten record and a first-round bye in the conference tourney. It should have been this year.


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