It was hard to tell after Thursday’s 62-59 loss to Michigan State if Iowa coach Fran McCaffery was more upset with his team or with the officials.
But since rules prohibit McCaffery from blasting the officials, he focused on what’s now becoming a disturbing theme: his team’s lack of toughness.
McCaffery didn’t toss any of his players under the bus in the same it’s-not-my-fault manner in which former Iowa coach Steve Alford did so often after a loss. But McCaffery made it clear after Thursday’s loss at Carver-Hawkeye Arena that something has to change in a hurry.
His team is 0-3 in the Big Ten and now faces another toughness test against Northwestern on Sunday in Evanston, Ill, and might do so without the services of leading scorer Devyn Marble, who didn’t play against the Spartans because of an ankle injury.
This test will be more mental than physical because Northwestern plays at a turtle-like pace that often wears on a team and makes it become impatient on offense.
And if you catch the Wildcats on a day in which they’re shooting well from the perimeter, watch out. Just ask the Penn State players, who lost to Northwestern 70-54 Thursday at home.
Or you could ask the Baylor Bears, who lost to Northwestern 74-70 in early December at home. Baylor, unlike Penn State, has been a regular participant in the NCAA Tournament under coach Scott Drew, including advancing to the Elite Eight in two of the last three seasons.
“Now we’ve got to go on the road and play a team that’s going to execute to perfection,” McCaffery said of Northwestern. “And they’re going to shoot it. We’ve got to be better on both ends of the floor.”
McCaffery wasn’t optimistic when asked after Thursday’s game if Marble would play against Northwestern.
Without the 6-foot-6 Marble, Iowa loses arguably its best player when it comes to creating shots and breaking down a defender.
Senior Eric May filled in admirably for Marble in many ways Thursday, including grabbing seven rebounds and making one of Iowa’s four 3-point field goals. May also worked hard on defense like always, but he only made two baskets and scored five points.
Combine that with backup shooting guard Josh Oglesby being held scoreless and that’s 10 fewer points than what Marble averages per game.
Junior forwards Zach McCabe and Melsahn Basabe did their part on Thursday to compensate for Marble’s absence by scoring 15 and 14 points, respectively, off the bench.
Iowa’s three freshmen starters, on the other hand, mostly played like freshmen, although, McCaffery said it’s too late in the season for that excuse.
Starting freshmen guards Anthony Clemmons and Mike Gesell combined to finish with almost as many turnovers as points with eight and 10, respectively. They both had four turnovers, which overshadowed them combining for 11 assists.
“Now, you could say, `well, we’ve got two freshmen point guards out there,” McCaffery said. “I don’t care. They’re not freshmen anymore. I don’t care what grade you’re in. You cannot turn the ball over in those situations.”
The Iowa players also can’t sulk or lose their focus because the mighty Big Ten will show them no mercy. The first seven Big Ten games looked brutal on paper, and so far it’s carried to the court.
Iowa failed to close the deal in its first two Big Ten home games – losing to Michigan State and Indiana by a combined seven points - but also got hammered by Michigan 95-67 in its only conference road game to this point. Whether a close call or a rout, each hurts in its own way and could cause more hurt down the road if Iowa fails to make the NCAA Tournament.
This is really the first time that Iowa has had expectations under McCaffery, with some picking the Hawkeyes as a sleeper pick to make the NCAA Tournament this season. But with higher expectations comes more pressure to succeed. You could almost feel the pressure weighing on the Iowa players Thursday, especially the three freshmen starters. Clemmons and 7-1 center Adam Woodbury were a combined 2-of-13 from the field, with Clemmons missing all but one of his nine shots.
Unlike Iowa’s first three Big Ten opponents, Northwestern isn’t ranked, but that could make the Wildcats more dangerous from a mental standpoint on Sunday.
May as Iowa’s lone senior will take it upon himself to rally his teammates.
“I’m confident in my team,” May said. “The guys we’ve got, we’re going to learn from it and take this as fuel to keep getting better.”
The season is far from over. But with each loss, Iowa’s goal of making the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2006 becomes more difficult.
Iowa now has to finish 9-6 in the final 15 conference games just to finish .500 in the Big Ten. The fact that Iowa already has two Big Ten losses at home only heightens the concern, along with Marble’s ankle injury.
Nobody said getting over the hump would be easy, especially this season in the deep and talented Big Ten. At some point, you figured adversity would surface.
Well, it has.
Category: Iowa Hawkeyes men's basketball