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Harty: Hawkeye fans just need to keep the faith

[ 0 ] February 24, 2013 |

Few things are more disheartening to a fan base than realizing that a rebuilding process isn’t as far along as it was thought to be.

That seems to be the reaction in the wake of the Iowa men’s basketball team’s stunning 64-60 loss at Nebraska on Saturday, a game in which the Hawkeyes led by 19 points late in the first half.

Whether that’s true or not remains to be seen.

Iowa (17-10, 6-8 Big Ten) still has four regular-season games remaining, beginning with a very winnable match-up against a struggling Purdue squad Wednesday at Carver-Hawkeye Arena.

It’s winnable for lots of reason, but mostly because Iowa will be the home team. The circumstances were the same when Purdue hosted Iowa on Jan. 27, just in reverse. The Boilermakers took advantage of the favorable circumstances by escaping with a 65-62 victory in overtime.

Winning on the road is often the most difficult step in any rebuilding process.

Defeating teams that you’re expected to prevail against is another key step in getting over the hump. The fact that Iowa blew a 19-point lead against a Nebraska team that’s considered inferior shows that third-year coach Fran McCaffery still has work to do in that area.

Some things just can’t be forced or hurried — building an NCAA Tournament team for example.

The process can always be expedited by a team getting on a hot streak and winning a postseason tournament, as Iowa did in 2001 under former coach Steve Alford. But more times than not the grind of a regular-season schedule will determine a team’s true identity and its fate.

It seems clear after 27 games that Iowa can compete against anybody in the country when playing well, especially at home, as evidenced by its 69-65 loss to Indiana in the Big Ten opener on New Year’s Eve and the 62-59 loss to Michigan State on Jan. 10. The problem for Iowa has been closing the deal at home against quality opponents. That’s just another part of getting over the hump.

Part of what made Saturday’s meltdown at Nebraska so hard to take is that you probably figured Nebraska would make a run or two in the second half, but that Iowa would have enough depth, firepower and poise to ultimately quell the comeback and finally climb to .500 in the Big Ten.

Instead, though, it turned out being the worst loss and potentially the most costly setback under McCaffery.

You figured heading into the Nebraska game that four of Iowa’s last five regular-season games were winnable, the exception being Saturday’s game at top-ranked Indiana. Now it’s hard to know what to think about Iowa’s chances coming off the Nebraska debacle.

The loss to Nebraska also has some people questioning McCaffery on the Internet message boards and on Twitter, suggesting the honeymoon is finally over. Some fans are struggling to accept that Iowa might not make the NCAA Tournament this season.

It doesn’t seem to matter that Iowa is probably a lock to make the National Invitation Tournament this season barring a complete unraveling. That’s a step forward compared to last season when Iowa needed a late push just to make the NIT en route to an 18-17 record. It’s not the step that many fans expected in McCaffery’s third season, but it is a step forward.

McCaffery makes you a believer just by the way he conducts himself. His enthusiasm is infectious and his work ethic is second to none, especially on the recruiting trail where McCaffery is relentless in his approach.

He’s been rewarded by landing top-100 players Adam Woodbury and Mike Gesell in this season’s freshman class, while also finding hidden gem Aaron White in Ohio two years ago.

But McCaffery also might be guilty of providing false hope, by no fault of his own. McCaffery’s personality inspires confidence and Iowa fans are desperate to get over the hump. Combine those two things and expectations tend to grow, sometimes beyond where they should be.

Iowa fans owe it to McCaffery to keep the faith because it’s only his third season and because the program was in shambles when he replaced Todd Lickliter as coach in late March 2010. The talent had been decimated under Lickliter by a disturbing pattern of player attrition.

You can’t dispute that McCaffery has succeeded in changing the culture and in upgrading the talent.

Eric May is the only senior on the current team. And while he contributes in many ways as a 6-foot-5 wing player, including being a team leader, his departure has been addressed.

Iowa will add 6-6 shooting guard Peter Jok and 6-8 Wisconsin transfer Jarrod Uthoff to the roster next season. Jok plays for former Iowa point guard Jeff Horner at West Des Moines Valley, while Uthoff is practicing with Iowa on a daily basis this season while sitting out under NCAA transfer rules.

Both players are considered good shooters, which is probably Iowa’s biggest weakness this season.

It’s easy to picture Iowa with the addition of Jok and Uthoff making the NCAA Tournament next season, even more so if Iowa guard Devyn Marble returns for his senior season and if star players such as Michigan point Trey Burke, Indiana center Cody Zeller and Ohio State small forward Deshaun Thomas bolt early for the NBA.

That doesn’t make this season easier to take, but it should make it easier for fans to keep the faith.

Reach Pat Harty at 339-7368 or pharty@press-citizen.com.

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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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