IOWA CITY, IA. — A 13-point halftime lead had turned into a four-point deficit, with just over 9 minutes to play.
Iowa’s mojo was missing, shots weren’t falling, defense was missing and heads were down. Carver-Hawkeye Arena was quiet as fans watched a disaster unfolding before their very eyes. A fourth straight loss, this one to underdog Purdue, had become a real possibility.
“Shoot,” Aaron White said, an impish grin tipping off his sarcastic intentions. “If we had lost this one the world might have ended.”
Two unlikely shots, an Adam Woodbury right-handed jump hook over A.J. Hammons and a White 3-pointer, just his fourth in 16 Big Ten games this season, erased the deficit. Iowa would outscore Purdue by 11 points down the stretch and record its 20th win and get to 9-7 in the league with games remaining at Michigan State Thursday and home against Illinois Saturday.
White’s sarcasm was his answer to the “world is ending” response from members of the Hawkeye fan base and national media that added members with each loss — Wisconsin, then at Minnesota, then at Indiana.
“After we lost three in a row, all of a sudden we’re on the (NCAA) bubble?” White said. “Are we going to make the tournament? When you’re hot, you’re hot. When your cold, no one likes you.”
That might be understating the obvious, but Sunday was a must win for a Hawkeye team that had lost three of their previous four home games. Close losses, all. Sunday had all the makings of another one.
“It was a gut check, there’s no question about that,” Iowa coach Fran McCaffery said.
Iowa’s first NCAA Tournament appearance since 2006 is imminent. That is good news for McCaffery, who will earn a $200,000 bonus that will increase his salary to $1.8 million in 2014-15.
The bad news? All that NCAA talk leading up to March Madness.
“We get that question in December now,” McCaffery said. “We get it in November. I don’t care right now. How can we beat Michigan State? How can we keep getting better? When the time comes, we’ll deal with that. It drives me crazy. You watch ESPN, that’s all they talk about. Who is going to make a run? Who is the No. 1 seed? Why are we talking about the No. 1 seed in February?”
The national chatter has been generous to the Hawkeyes all season. Iowa has even received Final Four mention, a place the Hawkeyes haven’t visited since 1980. And that made me wonder if all that talk played a role in Iowa’s recent swoon? So I asked McCaffery what he thought.
“I think it’s a legitimate question,” he said. “I don’t think so.”
I’ll take him for his word, though deep down I wonder if he’s telling me the truth. How can national expectations not get in someone’s head? Such an easy thing to believe, and fall in love with.
“We’ll, we can’t read it anymore,” White said.
He, like his teammates, get a lot of their news from links posted on Twitter. McCaffery banned his players from Twitter last week after Zach McCabe’s unpleasant social media experience. I wonder if all that led to a loss of focus, too.
But as I think back to Iowa’s first and only losing streak of the season, a lack of defense fueled by fatigue probably played a bigger role than the talking heads.
Iowa’s game with Purdue was its fourth in nine days, and McCaffery saw some sluggishness over that stretch. And I think there may have been a hangover from that 79-74 loss to Wisconsin Feb. 22, when Iowa had a lead inside of 40 seconds to play. Then came back-to-back defensive disasters, allowing 95 points to Minnesota and 93 to Indiana.
“We were not defending,” McCaffery said. “We looked a bit tired, I thought, at times. That was disappointing.”
Then came a 50-37 halftime lead Sunday against Purdue, and everything looked right in the world. At least until the Boilermakers started the second half on a 12-2 run.
“If you’re not scoring and not defending, that’s how you blow a 13-point lead and get down four,” McCaffery said.
But Iowa rallied down the stretch, and remains in the hunt for the No. 4 seed and a first-round bye in next week’s Big Ten Tournament in Indianapolis, Ind. Iowa and Nebraska are 9-7, Ohio State is 9-8. The Hawkeyes hold the tiebreaker in all scenarios. Nebraska plays at Indiana Wednesday and hosts Wisconsin Sunday. Ohio State’s final game is Sunday at home against Michigan State.
In this unpredictable, against-the-form Big Ten season, Thursday would be an opportune time for Iowa to accomplish something it hasn’t since 1993 — win at Michigan State.
Rick Brown is a 10-time Iowa Sportswriter of the Year and covers Hawkeye basketball for the Register. Follow him on Twitter: @ByRickBrown.
Category: Iowa Hawkeyes men's basketball