STATE COLLEGE, Pa. – Zach Johnson has watched Iowa’s basketball team come agonizingly close to winning each of their last three Big Ten road games.
It’s turned into a miserable television rerun: An overtime loss at Purdue. A three-point loss at Minnesota. A double-overtime loss at Wisconsin.
“This team is close,” said Johnson, an Iowa native and devoted Hawkeye fan who in his 10th season on the PGA Tour. “Real close.”
But there’s no close column in the Big Ten standings. Iowa is 4-7 in conference play and 15-9 overall heading into Thursday’s 8 p.m. game against Penn State. The Nittany Lions are 0-11 in the Big Ten, but Iowa has lost five consecutive games at the Bryce Jordan Center.
Close doesn’t count on the PGA Tour, either. Johnson has won nine times during his career, including the 2007 Masters. He has earned a bulldog reputation for his ability to close the deal. Get him in contention on the back nine of a final round, and he usually reaches the finish line.
So what advice would Johnson, who is 3-0 in sudden-death playoffs during his PGA Tour career, give Iowa coach Fran McCaffery’s team in a close game?
“Execution is paramount any time during sport,” said Johnson, who has appeared on three Ryder Cup teams. “Especially down the stretch.”
Iowa held the lead in the final minute of regulation at Purdue, Minnesota and Wisconsin.
“Some athletes shy away or falter, others thrive and embrace it,” Johnson said. “I’m not sure that is teachable. Saying that, to execute down the stretch one (or a team) has to rely on what they can control. The little things. That is all you can trust.”
Fate will always raise its ugly head, whether it’s a potential game-winning 3-pointer by Iowa’s Josh Oglesby that went halfway down and spun out at the end of regulation at Wisconsin or Phil Mickelson’s putt to shoot 59 in the opening round of the Phoenix Open that lipped out.
You can’t practice gravity. You can fine tune and improve the release of a jump shot or the putting stroke.
“The team that focuses on fundamentals in the crunch – spacing, proper screening, proficient passing, being fully rested if called upon, free-throw shooting, boxing out – usually will win,” Johnson said. “If a team has a freak athlete that wants the ball, that certainly doesn’t hurt. But those are few and far between.”
A play here or a shot there and the perspective on Iowa’s season would be drastically altered.
“You win, and you feel all’s right with the world,” McCaffery said. “You lose, and everything’s horrible and the whole world is caving in on you. The reality is, it’s never that good or that bad.”
Instead of a woe-is-me approach, McCaffery has spent his time trying to improve his team and make sure it’s better prepared for the next crucial situation they face.
“It’s a constant journey where there’s nothing but teaching and hard work and effort that goes into trying to continue to get better, so that you don’t focus on, ‘Wow, it’s really tough losing close games,’” McCaffery said. “That’s history. We’re moving forward now. And we just have to focus on the next one and try to get better so that in a close game, we know what to do.”
WHO: Iowa (15-9, 4-7 Big Ten) at Penn State (8-15, 0-11 Big Ten).
WHERE: Bryce Jordan Center, State College, Pa.
TIPOFF: 8 p.m.
RADIO: WHO-AM (1040) and Hawkeye Radio Network.
STAT LEADERS: For Iowa – Aaron White 13.5 ppg; White 5.9 rpg; Anthony Clemmons 3.6 apg; for Penn State – D.J. Newbill 15.8 ppg; Newbill 5.7 rpg; Newbill 4.1 apg.
ABOUT THE HAWKEYES: Iowa’s last victory at the Bryce Jordan Center came in 2006, 80-76. The Hawkeyes have lost five straight at Penn State.
ABOUT THE NITTANY LIONS: Penn State is last in the Big Ten in scoring offense (54.8 ppg), field-goal percentage (.353) and 3-point percentage (.236).
WHAT TO WATCH FOR: Iowa’s last three road games are the program’s most unkind road stretch since the 2004-05 season. That team lost consecutive road games to Illinois in overtime, 73-68; to Northwestern in overtime, 75-74; at Wisconsin, 72-69; and at Purdue, 66-63.
The Register’s Rick Brown hosted a live chat Wednesday. Read the transcript:
Category: Iowa Hawkeyes men's basketball