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Pat Harty: Loss just one chapter, not whole book

[ 0 ] March 8, 2014 |

To some fans, the story of the 2013-14 Iowa men’s basketball team already has been written — and it has a very sad ending.

Saturday’s 66-63 loss to Illinois did nothing to change that. It was the latest blow to a season that once looked so promising, but now is spiraling in the wrong direction.

But I still say why bury this Iowa team completely? Why not let the entire season play out before assuming the worst or giving up?

Iowa still has plenty of chances to build on the season with the Big Ten Tournament and most likely the NCAA Tournament still to be played.

You could argue that Iowa at 20-11 overall and 9-9 in the Big Ten has underachieved this season. But perhaps it’s more a case that expectations were too high. Or maybe the truth is somewhere in the middle.

Whatever the case, the story of this team still is being written, with Saturday’s loss another painful chapter. The fact that it was decided by an Illinois role player named Jon Ekey making a 3-point basket in the finals seconds seems appropriate because everybody seems to be making treys against the Hawkeyes these days.

Iowa coach Fran McCaffery was asked after Saturday’s stunning defeat what it would take for this season to be successful in his opinion.

“We’re just going to try to keep winning,” McCaffery said. “I think we’ve done a lot of things so far this season. I’m very pleased with a lot of the things we’ve done.

“But it’s a long journey and you have great points and you have mediocre points. And you have areas where you go in the other direction. And then you just have to keep working. As a staff, we’ll keep working and the players will keep working. We’ve got character in that locker room. We’ll be fine.”

Iowa has two options at this point, but the only acceptable option is to keep fighting and clawing just like McCaffery said. The other option would be surrendering to adversity, but McCaffery is too proud and too confident to let that happen.

His team might not be good enough to overcome the current skid, which includes five losses in the last six games, but it won’t be from a lack of effort. The biggest problem Iowa has right now besides inconsistent shooters is a lack of mental toughness.

McCaffery raised a few eyebrows during his post-game press conference when he said his team was a little fragile. You don’t want to hear that from a head coach at any point of the season, but especially not after playing 31 games.

Calling his team a little fragile might be McCaffery’s way of saying we aren’t mentally tough enough without actually saying it publicly.

The buzz from honoring Iowa’s three seniors didn’t last long as Illinois quickly built a double-digit lead. It was hard to say with Iowa trailing 20-6 if the Hawkeyes were playing worse on offense or on defense.

Ironically, it was embattled senior forward Zach McCabe who finally ignited the turnaround by making a 3-pointer near the top of the key with 13 minutes, 20 seconds left in the first half. But just when you thought McCabe might seize the moment, he picked up two fouls less than one minute later, sending him to the bench for the rest of the first half.

His teammates kept chipping away at the deficit and finally took the lead when sophomore guard Mike Gesell made a basket to give Iowa a 23-21 lead with 6:24 left in the first half.

The first half ended in appropriate fashion on Senior Day with senior forward Melsahn Basabe scoring off an inbound pass right before the buzzer, giving Iowa a 34-29 lead at halftime.

The Hawkeyes failed to protect the lead, though, and that’s been a lingering problem since about mid-February.

It’s still easy to picture Iowa making a run in the Big Ten Tournament if it plays with the same poise and precision that it showed while dismantling Big Ten regular-season champion Michigan 85-67 on Feb. 8 at Carver-Hawkeye Arena. But it’s also easy to picture Iowa making an early exit if it shoots poorly from the perimeter and performs like a sieve on defense, or if senior Devyn Marble struggles like he did Saturday, scoring just eight points on 3-of-11 shooting from the field.

We’ve been watching this team play since mid-November, and yet it’s still hard to know what to expect with each game besides McCaffery’s face turning red at some point. The Hawkeyes tease you with their depth and versatility. But they also cause you to scratch your head during their long scoring droughts and their defensive lapses.

Say what you want about McCabe, which unfortunately, some have on Twitter, radio call-in shows and Internet message boards, but the good still far outweighs the bad where’s he’s concerned.

That was obvious by the rousing ovation that McCabe received when he was introduced during the pregame ceremony in which the three senior players and three student-managers were honored at Carver-Hawkeye Arena. Reasonable fans are willing to look beyond McCabe’s current struggles and realize that he is part of the foundation on which the program is being built.

McCabe, like McCaffery said, took a leap of faith in coming to Iowa because the program was in disarray four years ago. McCabe had other scholarship offers, but he only had one offer that meant being a Hawkeye.

His vulgar tweet and his takedown of Michigan State guard Travis Trice are the only blemishes on McCabe’s otherwise sparkling resume. The fact that both incidents occurred within a two-week period while McCabe has been struggling and Iowa is unraveling makes it seem worse.

McCabe wanted nothing more than to make Iowa fans proud with his performance this season as a senior. He still has that opportunity, although, time is running out.

My advice is just give him the chance.

Category: Iowa Hawkeyes men's basketball

About Pat Harty: Columnist Pat Harty has been covering the Iowa Hawkeyes for the Press-Citizen since 1991. Originally from Des Moines, he currently writes columns and covers Hawkeye men's basketball for Hawk Central. View author profile.

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