DAYTON, Ohio -- Iowa's senior basketball players spoke to the media, exited the stage to the right, walked behind a dark blue curtain and immediately burst into laughter.
For them, it's a welcome and almost uncharacteristic public release. After three weeks of monotone reactions, no doubt fueled by late-season excruciating losses to Big Ten rivals, Iowa players say they're relaxed and focused. Their reactions seem to back it up.
But facing Tennessee (21-12) in a first-round NCAA Tournament game Wednesday (8 p.m. truTV) hardly is a joke, and they know it. The Volunteers are a grinding squad, much like Iowa's Big Ten brethren from East Lansing and West Lafayette. Tennessee out-rebounded its last nine opponents and ranked third nationally in rebounding margin at plus-8.5. Tennessee boasts powerful forwards Jarnell Stokes and Jeronne Maymon, each of whom weigh 260 pounds. Both are pictured on the team media guide with sledgehammers in hand, reinforcing the tough guy image.
The Volunteers persevered when fans challenged the team after an overtime loss to Texas A&M. Tennessee responded by winning five of their last six, and the only loss was to top-ranked Florida.
Physically and mentally tough. That sounds like the anti-Iowa of the last month. But instead of offering soft praise of his opponent, Iowa's Melsahn Basabe dropped the gauntlet.
"Obviously (Stokes) is a very talented player," Basabe said. "But like I said, the Big Ten has been pretty good my four years here, so I've seen everything from (Jared) Sullinger to Draymond Green and Adreian Payne and Branden Dawson and all those guys. So I'm used to competing against high-level big men.
"(Stokes) presents his own challenges, but I think as long as you play them correctly and bring the proper intensity and you've got to realize when that shot goes up, it's going to be a war for the rebound, I think we're able to get it done."
Iowa has lacked Basabe's bravado over the last month. The Hawkeyes are 1-6 since Feb. 22 and their defense has waned as have their rebounding numbers. Iowa was second in Big Ten rebounding margin at plus-7.4 -- ninth nationally -- but has trended downward the last three weeks. Iowa was out-rebounded five times over its last seven games. The Hawkeyes were out-rebounded only three times in their first 25 games.
But defense is primary concern. The Hawkeyes plummeted from the Big Ten's third-ranked team in defensive field-goal percentage to 11th during their slide. Many of the woes were fundamental. Some of it is based on the lack of communication. A lack of energy also was addressed.
"It's not perception because obviously the numbers show that we haven't been defending to our capability," Basabe said. "We were a really good defensive team. The last two years we've been one of the good defensive teams in the country. I'm going to say as a senior I'm going to start off by letting my voice be heard."
Mental toughness also has waned, particularly after halftime. In their last four games, Iowa has allowed teams to march back into competition or take a quick second-half lead. Against Purdue, Iowa led 50-37, but the Boilermakers staged a 12-2 run in the first four minutes. At Michigan State, the Hawkeyes led 41-39 at halftime, then promptly gave up a 9-0 run to trail 48-41. Then Iowa held a 34-29 lead against Illinois but in the first 1:33, Illini raced to an 8-2 run. Last week in the Big Ten Tournament, Iowa was tied 31-31 with Northwestern. The Wildcats started the half on a 10-3 run to lead 41-34.
"We’ve got to come out prepared and anticipate a run coming at us," Iowa junior Aaron White said. "We’ve got to do something to kind of affect it. Maybe it’s take a little longer possession on offense and get a better shot which helps us get our defense back. We’ve got to be locked in."
But the spark, sorely missing the last few weeks appears back for Iowa basketball. The laughter, the carefree attitude was apparent, and Iowa Coach Fran McCaffery believes the team is refreshed and relaxed.
"I think without question that was on their minds every time we took the floor," McCaffery said of NCAA tournament expectations. "Maybe it wasn't as helpful at times. But ... once you're here, you know then, OK, we all have an equal opportunity to win a national championship. And it starts with the first game."
"I’m really looking forward to the match-up," White said. "I like it in our favor. I can’t wait to get on the floor."The swagger is back. Will the results follow? That's yet to be determined.