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Harty: Making the NIT is still progress, but that won’t be the case next season

[ 0 ] March 17, 2013 |

Even though Iowa fans should’ve known it was coming, being left out of the NCAA Tournament for a seventh consecutive season and for the 11th time in the last 14 years still is a sobering development.

It also increases the pressure on Fran McCaffery to make it happen next season.

This isn’t to suggest that McCaffery’s seat is anything but safe and secure heading into Wednesday’s game against No. 6 seed Indiana State in the first round of the National Invitation Tournament at Carver-Hawkeye Arena. The Iowa program obviously is moving in the right direction under McCaffery just based solely on wins and losses. Iowa’s victory total has increased from 11 to 18 to 21 in McCaffery’s first three seasons as coach.

But on the other hand, it’s also reasonable to expect an NCAA Tournament bid in the fourth season of almost any rebuilding project, including the one taking place under McCaffery at Iowa.

But before he concerns himself with next season, McCaffery faces the daunting task of trying to get his players to embrace the challenge of competing in the NIT for the second consecutive season as if it were an NCAA Tournament game.

Indiana State finished the regular season with records of 18-14 overall and 9-9 in the Missouri Valley Conference. The Sycamores are coached by former Hawkeye assistant Greg Lansing. It won’t be the same as Steve Alford returning to Carver-Hawkeye Arena to coach against his former employer, but it will add some spice to the usually bland NIT gumbo.

“We have great respect for Greg Lansing and the job that he has done there and in his career,” McCaffery said Sunday night on a teleconference. “So we know what’s in store for us.”

Senior captain Eric May will help McCaffery inspire the players because although the NIT hardly compares to playing in the NCAA Tournament, it’s all he has left as a Hawkeye. His teammates owe it to May as the lone senior on scholarship to treat the NIT with respect because May has poured his heart and soul into helping bring the Iowa program back from one of its lowest points ever.

My guess is they will embrace the challenge because of how they feel about May but also because they have pride themselves and because McCaffery won’t accept anything less.

The Iowa players have to get over the hurt and frustration from being left out of the NCAA Tournament and use it as fuel for the NIT. The best way to show the NCAA Selection Committee, and Mr. Bracketologist Joe Lunardi — who by the way picked all 68 teams correctly — that they were wrong about Iowa would be to make a deep run in the NIT.

The NIT Selection Committee also might have done the Hawkeyes a favor by seeding them third in their region. It was widely assumed that Iowa would either be a No. 1 or a No. 2 seed because reports had the Hawkeyes being among the top six teams to not make the NCAA Tournament.

McCaffery said Sunday that he doesn’t expect his players to have a letdown. And he said it with conviction.

“They’ll be fired up without question,” McCaffery said.

Nobody is more disappointed than McCaffery about Iowa not making the NCAA Tournament. He knows his team is one of the best 68, but he also understands the process and how the lack of one signature win can be the difference when nearly half of the teams in the NCAA Tournament field receive automatic bids.

That’s why McCaffery didn’t spend Sunday obsessing over Iowa’s tournament fate.

“I really wasn’t thinking about it one way or the other because I don’t obsess about things I have no control over,” McCaffery said. “At this point in time, your fate is in the hands of two different committees.”

McCaffery took a chance by choosing to play an easy non-conference — Iowa’s non-conference has been ranked below 300 throughout the season — and it ultimately backfired because it left the Hawkeyes with too little margin for error in conference play.

Iowa’s 9-9 record in conference play wasn’t good enough to compensate for its easy non-conference schedule, especially when you factor in that Iowa finished a combined 0-6 against Big Ten powers Michigan State, Indiana, Ohio State and Michigan. Win just one of those games and this column likely would’ve been about Iowa preparing for its first NCAA Tournament appearance since 2006 and about McCaffery adding to his reputation as a master rebuilder instead of being about Iowa preparing for its third NIT game since near the end of last season.

It’s hard to put the final stamp on this season before the NIT plays out, but it’s not hard to see that the Iowa program is moving in the right direction under McCaffery. Losing May to graduation will create a void, but adding Wisconsin transfer Jarrod Uthoff and incoming freshman shooting guard Peter Jok will create much-needed scoring options.

The inability to makes shots has plagued Iowa this season perhaps more than anything else, with the Hawkeyes shooting under .500 percent in 19 of 20 games against Big Ten opponents.

It also has overshadowed the improvement made on defense this season. You probably could count on one hand the number of games this season in which Iowa didn’t bring it on defense and still have a few fingers left over.

It was nice for a change to actually have a reason to pay attention to the NCAA Selection show, even though Iowa was considered a long shot at best to make it. The fact that Iowa was even part of the NCAA Tournament discussion is progress considering where the program was when McCaffery was hired in late March 2010.

It’s also nice to have a coach who actually wants to be here instead of coaching in the state of Indiana, which seemed to be the case with his two predecessors at Iowa.

Making the NIT might not be cause for celebration for fans who expected more from Iowa this season. But it’s still enough to say that McCaffery is getting the job done.

That won’t be the case next year, though.

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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