By Ben Frederickson
Knoxville (Tenn.) News Sentinel
DAYTON, Ohio – The Tennessee men’s basketball team’s starting five chatted and chuckled as they approached the stage on Tuesday. Earlier, three Iowa players had taken the same seats without a peep. That trip to the Bahamas seemed so long ago.
When the Vols (21-12) and Hawkeyes (20-12) meet Wednesday (TV: TruTV, 9:10 p.m.) in the NCAA tournament’s First Four at UD Arena, they will play a game that was expected to take place in a swanky beach resort four months ago.
But UT lost to UTEP and Iowa raced down the winner’s side of the Battle 4 Atlantis bracket until an overtime loss to Villanova – the Hawkeyes’ first of the season – kept them from claiming a trophy that looked like a shell. While the Vols salvaged wins against Xavier and Wake Forest, they appeared unreliable at best. The Hawkeyes looked like they could turn an NCAA tournament on its head. Fast forward.
These two No. 11 seeds who are playing for a shot at No. 6 seed UMass in Raleigh, N.C., took, well, complicated paths to Dayton. They entered the season with veteran rosters and fans who expected NCAA tournament dry spells — Iowa’s last trip was 2006; UT’s was 2011 — to be snapped. And then some. Instead, both got in by the skin of their teeth.
“At that time of the year, you’re not sure where you are going to end up,” Iowa coach Fran McCaffery said of his team’s sprint out of the gates. “Both teams obviously came into the season with great expectations. We both have experience. And typically with experience you have expectations. And fortunately, we’re both here.”
What differs greatly is how. UT is now the trendy “bracket buster.” Iowa limped across the finish line.
The Vols, who won a season-best five straight before they fell to No. 1 Florida in the SEC tournament semifinals on Saturday, prefer the present.
“I think we’re a totally different team in all aspects, from top to bottom,” UT forward Jeronne Maymon said. “I think we’ve all improved. If not so physically, mentally more than anything. So we came a long way. That’s why we are playing our best basketball right now.”
The Hawkeyes, who climbed as high as No. 10 in the AP poll in January before they lost six of their final seven games, want to turn back time.
“We just have to get back to the basketball we were playing, playing together as one unit,” Iowa forward Zach McCabe said.
Also weighing on Iowa is its concern for McCaffery’s son, 13-year-old Patrick, who was recently diagnosed with a thyroid tumor. A surgery is scheduled for Wednesday morning. McCaffery returned to Iowa from Dayton on Tuesday evening, but plans on coaching Wednesdays’ game.
“I said a prayer for he and his family last night and this morning,” UT coach Cuonzo Martin said. “Because at the end of the day this is what we do for a living, but it’s not who we are. First and foremost, he’s a father, and that’s the most important thing.”
UT’s late run hinged on two things — a defense that’s surrendered an average of 47.7 points through its last five games and an offense that makes forward Jarnell Stokes (14.7 ppg, 10.3 rpg) the focal point. Meanwhile Iowa is trying to iron out kinks in a fast-paced offense that is both prolific and efficient. The Hawkeyes rank in the top-10 in point (82 ppg), assists (16.2 apg) shoot 46.5 percent from the field as a team. But they haven’t surpassed 66 points in two games.
Asked if his team will be able to press the reset button on its slide into the tournament, McCaffery was optimistic.
“I hope so,” he said. “I really do. I think there was so much emphasis put on this team’s ability to get here, to get into the NCAA tournament.”
The Vols can relate. And they say their slate, along with Iowa’s, has been wiped clean.
“It’s something new,” UT guard Jordan McRae said. “Everybody’s record is 0-0. 68 teams right now are trying to do the same thing.”
Category: Iowa Hawkeyes men's basketball