INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. Iowa led the Big Ten in scoring this season. Northwestern finished last in nine different offensive categories.
Add the fact that the Hawkeyes had won the two regular-season meetings by 26 points each and it looked like the perfect tonic for Iowa to shake out of its late-season swoon in the first round of the Big Ten Tournament at Bankers Life Fieldhouse.
But instead of generating some momentum heading into postseason play, the Hawkeyes return to Iowa City after a stunning 67-62 loss to the Wildcats. And questions outnumbered answers after a sixth loss in the last seven games.
“There’s no magic formula,” Iowa coach Fran McCaffery said after his team fell to 20-12. “You’ve just got to keep working. You don’t talk your way out of it, you don’t fake your way out of it. You work your way out.”
The elephant in the room is the NCAA Tournament. Iowa appears safely in the field, though Selection Sunday might be more dramatic than expected. Asked what might get this team out of a funk, Aaron White had a suggestion.
“Don’t play a team from the Big Ten,” White said. “Man, I don’t know.”
Point guard Mike Gesell has spent a career winning basketball games, both in college and high school. But Thursday was a forgettable night. Gesell missed all 10 of his field-goal attempts, five of them from 3-point range.
Gesell, like the Hawkeyes, appear to have hit the wall head first.
“We’re a very good ballclub, and we’re not playing like it right now,” Gesell said. “And we should be playing like that.”
Northwestern coach Chris Collins is the one who will be matching wits with Michigan State’s Tom Izzo today, not McCaffery, after his team improved to 14-18.
“We played maybe our best game of the year,” Collins said. “I thought on both sides of the ball we played really well.”
It might have been the worst loss of McCaffery’s Iowa coaching career. The Hawkeyes are broke, that’s pretty obvious. And I don’t know what will fix them. On Friday, some of the numbers in the box score were staggering.
Northwestern shot 52.3 percent from the field, the third team to make more than half of its shots against Iowa’s shell-shocked defense. That included 11 3-pointers in 23 attempts.
“It was nice to see the ball go in the basket,” Collins said.
In the first two games against the Hawkeyes, the Wildcats shot 39 percent and 36.4 percent.
Iowa was outrebounded in the first half 17-11. Melsahn Basabe had four rebounds in five minutes of play. The rest of the team combined for seven. The Hawkeyes ended up winning the rebounding battle, for just the second time in the last seven games. But Iowa wiped out Northwestern in the regular-season games, by margins of 41-28 and 44-20.
Iowa launched 24 3-pointers, and made just six. And that includes three straight by Jarrod Uthoff in a 3-minute spurt in the first half. Uthoff had made three 3-pointers in the previous 15 Big Ten games.
There is one lasting image of this game that sticks in my mind. Northwestern led 48-47 with less than seven minutes to play. One second remained on the shot clock when light-scoring Dave Sobolewski released a 3-pointer, and held the release, as it floated toward the basket. Swish. The same Sobolewski was 2-for-16 from 3-point range against Big Ten competition entering play Thursday.
It was Northwestern’s third straight basket with the shot clock about to expire. And that seemed to suck the life out of the Hawkeyes.
And a season remains on life support.
Rick Brown, a 10-time Iowa Sportswriter of the Year, covers Hawkeye basketball for the Register. Follow him on Twitter: @ByRickBrown.