The longest season in the history of the Iowa men’s basketball program finally was laid to rest Thursday night in the city that never sleeps.
Iowa didn’t get the result it was hoping for, losing to Baylor 74-54 in the NIT title game at Madison Square Garden in New York City.
But this Iowa squad did get the program over the hump in the eyes of many by winning 25 games despite only having one senior on scholarship.
This Iowa team played in more games (38) than any previous Iowa team had and it won a game in April before the New York Yankees did.
This Iowa team won 11 of its final 15 games and did it in a way that was enjoyable to watch with solid team play and constant hustle under third-year coach Fran McCaffery.
This Iowa team also brought back something that’s been missing from the landscape for most of the past decade – high expectations.
Playing in the NIT in back-to-back seasons has been fun and rewarding for everybody associated with the program. But more will be expected from Iowa next season. In other words, anything less than making the NCAA Tournament would be considered a disappointment.
The most disappointing thing about Thursday’s game besides the lopsided final score and that it was Eric May’s last game? Iowa missed so many easy putbacks near the basket. It almost seemed like the Iowa players were seeing two baskets, but they kept shooting at the wrong one.
Baylor had the edge in athleticism with players such as dynamic senior point guard Pierre Jackson, 7-foot freshman center Isaiah Austin and 6-9 forward Cory Jefferson leading the charge.
But you wondered if this game meant as much to the Bears as it did to the surging Hawkeyes. This was a Baylor program that had advanced to the NCAA Tournament Elite Eight in two of the last three seasons, including last season.
The Bears entered this season with many thinking that another NCAA Tournament appearance was likely despite the loss of three key frontline players from a year ago. But it didn’t happen, leaving the NIT as the next best option.
Neither team played well in the first half, which ended with Baylor clinging to a 27-22 lead. The low score at halftime was sort of misleading, though, because it wasn’t caused by both teams slowing the pace on offense, but just the opposite.
Bobby Knight helped call the game for ESPN and he criticized both teams, but especially Baylor, for taking too many quick shots in the first half.
The Bears used their length and athleticism to pull away in the second half, fueled by a 30-10 scoring run after the Hawkeyes had cut the deficit to 28-27 on a basket by May with 17 minutes, 37 seconds remaining.
The 5-10 Jackson repeatedly found gaps in the Iowa defense and his penetration often led to rim-rattling dunks for his high-flying teammates.
“They‘ve just been beaten by a better team, there is no question about that,” Knight said late in the second half.
Knight also pointed out that Baylor was quicker than Iowa at all five positions. Baylor might have been the quickest team Iowa faced all season. Combine that with Iowa shooting poorly and it was a recipe for defeat.
Some will argue that Iowa won’t officially be over the hump until it ends the NCAA Tournament drought, which currently stands at seven seasons.
Assuming Devyn Marble returns for his senior season and everybody else stays healthy, or in the case of freshman guard Mike Gesell, gets healthy, the pieces are in place for Iowa to contend for a Big Ten title in McCaffery’s fourth season as head coach.
Iowa’s chances next season will look even better if star players such as Michigan sophomore point guard Trey Burke and Indiana sophomore center Cody Zeller leave for the NBA.
The Hawkeyes were upset for being left out of the NCAA Tournament and they used the NIT as a chance to make a statement. They fell one game short of accomplishing their goal, but they did enough to say that Iowa basketball is back.
Category: Iowa Hawkeyes men's basketball