IOWA CITY, Ia. – During a timeout late in Tuesday’s Big Ten basketball game with Ohio State, with defeat imminent, Iowa’s Fran McCaffery was still coaching.
“Soft,” he told his team in the huddle. “Soft.”
To these eyes, it appeared a second straight team had come into Carver-Hawkeye Arena and inflicted their will on the Hawkeyes. Two teams, Michigan State and Ohio State, that are hard-nosed, tournament-tested teams.
Another one, No. 10 Michigan, comes to Carver-Hawkeye Arena for a 1 p.m. game today trying to get one big step closer to a Big Ten title by beating the 17th-ranked Hawkeyes.
“I just think they’re good,” McCaffery said. “I don’t think there’s any more than that. They’re good enough to win on the road, and they have good players, and they shot it. And we didn’t. I don’t think it’s anything more complicated than that.”
But McCaffery questioned his team’s toughness after a 71-69 overtime loss to Michigan State on Jan. 28, which snapped a 20-game home-court winning streak. His “soft” analysis in the final stages of Tuesday’s 76-69 loss to Ohio State seemed to follow the same lines.
And now comes Michigan, the Big Ten co-leader at 9-1 and 17-5 overall and last year’s national runner-up.
“They probably have the most weapons of any team in the league,” McCaffery said.
One of those primary weapons is Nik Stauskas. He scored a career-high 26 points in a 75-67 victory over the Hawkeyes in Ann Arbor, but was content with nine points and eight assists in Wednesday’s 79-50 thumping of Nebraska.
“That says a lot about him, a lot about (Michigan coach John Beilein) and a lot about the culture they have,” McCaffery said.
Which brings us to Iowa, 6-4 in the Big Ten, 17-6 overall and still trying to live up to all the national love that has come its way this season. The first five losses were to top-25 teams. A win over Michigan would define this season more than those close losses.
Ohio State had lost five of six before pulling itself off the canvas and beating Wisconsin and Iowa on the road.
Now it’s time to see if the Hawkeyes are equally resilient. McCaffery is confident that they are.
“This will be a big test,” McCaffery said. “We’re playing the first-place team in the league. We haven’t lost two games in a row all year, so we’ve responded every time we’ve gotten beat. We’ll see.”
Free-throw shooting has been problematic at key times this season. So has 3-point shooting — especially against Ohio State, when Iowa missed 17-of-20 attempts.
“If you look at our season so far, even in our losses, we have played very well in stretches,” McCaffery said. “We haven’t been beaten badly by anyone. We really haven’t mistaked our way into bad losses.”
Entering the Ohio State game, Iowa was third in the Big Ten in 3-point accuracy in all games (.370) and fourth in league games (.359). That was a step up from last season — 11th in all games (.305) and last in conference games (.284).
“You can argue that, OK, we might not be the best 3-point shooting team in the country, but we usually don’t shoot 3-for-20,” McCaffery said.
To borrow a line from the much-quoted movie “Animal House,” remain calm. All’s well.
“I think what you have to do is be respectful of your opponent,” said McCaffery, who is trying to take a fourth different program to the NCAA Tournament. “I don’t ever panic. And I don’t want my guys to panic. We lost to two teams that were preseason top 5 in the country. We would have liked to have beaten them at home. We did beat one of them (Ohio State) on the road. We have another shot at the other one.”
And one more shot at Michigan today. And another sellout crowd, hoping to see a different result.
Rick Brown is a 10-time Iowa Sportswriter of the Year and covers Hawkeye basketball and football for the Register. Follow him on Twitter: @ByRickBrown
Category: Iowa Hawkeyes men's basketball