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Rick Brown: Hawkeyes find cracking top echelon is tough

[ 0 ] February 23, 2014 |

IOWA CITY, Ia. – Iowa’s return to basketball relevancy has been a blessing. And a curse.

It’s been a significant climb, from dormancy to the top 25, in four seasons under coach Fran McCaffery. But Saturday’s last-minute loss to Wisconsin drove home this point: the line between relevance and reality is a tough one to cross.

The Hawkeyes have their toes on that line, but can’t seem to get over it. Even with a sellout crowd exhorting them on, a vocal hand to the back.

An assortment of national media types have been in love with Iowa all season. A few — Jay Bilas, Fran Fraschilla and Seth Greenberg, to name names — have even used Hawkeyes and Final Four in the same sentence. The curse is the expectations this hype brings with it.

Living up to those expectations can be harsh. That was the lesson learned in Saturday’s loss. The same lesson that home losses to Michigan State and Ohio State put on the table earlier in the season.

No matter what people are saying about you, you’ve still got to do it on the floor. And this Iowa team — and program — still has work to do before it joins the Big Ten’s elite.

There was a tantalizing win at No. 3 Ohio State on Jan. 12 that seemed to send a message that Iowa was ready to crash the party. Home losses to Michigan State, ranked sixth but playing without Adreian Payne, and Ohio State threw the party favors out the window.

A home blowout of No. 10 Michigan on Feb. 8 seemed to be another sign that the corner had been turned. But then came the bitter pill of Saturday’s loss to the Badgers.

Losing to Wisconsin, a team that has been to the NCAA Tournament and finished in the top four in the league standings in each of Bo Ryan’s first 12 seasons as coach, is not an embarrassment. Neither is a loss to Michigan State or Ohio State, which have carried the flag as the Big Ten’s best for years.

Yes, all seven of Iowa’s losses this season have been to teams currently in the Associated Press Top 25. The Hawkeyes own two victories over top-10 teams in the same season for the first time since 2005-06. But if you want to be considered a player, you’ve got to beat these teams more often. Especially at home.

And you’ve got to be able to finish a few of these close games. Iowa is 2-5 this season, and 0-3 in the Big Ten, in games decided by five points or less or in overtime.

Entering play Saturday, Iowa hadn’t laced it up in a late February game with Big Ten title hopes alive and well since 2006. That statement, alone, is a compliment to what McCaffery has done since inheriting a 10-win team. But Iowa fell to 2-6 against AP Top 25 teams after Wisconsin turned a one-point deficit into a five-point victory in the final 38 seconds of the game.

McCaffery pointed to a lack of toughness, an opinion fueled by Michigan State’s ability to track down 50-50 balls a majority of the time, for that loss. Iowa didn’t play with much defensive tenacity, and made just 3-of-20 3-pointers, against Ohio State.

On Saturday, Iowa was just 4-of-14 from 3. The Hawkeyes are now 0-5 in Big Ten play when they make less than five 3-pointers. But it was defense that was lacking at crucial times. Asked how he thought his team defended Wisconsin, McCaffery said, “Not well. Not well at all.”

There are going to be good nights and bad nights offensively. But defense should be a constant. And 26 games into a season, a team should have its defensive identity figured out. Defense is where Iowa grew the most last season. This season, not so much.

Five times in the final 9 minutes Saturday, Iowa went back on defense with a lead of three or four points. Wisconsin scored on four of those five possessions.

A Big Ten title may now be on life support, but the week ahead is still a very important one for a Hawkeye team that still hasn’t lost back-to-back games all season. Three games in six days: Tuesday at Minnesota, Thursday at Indiana, home against Purdue on Sunday.

A victory over the Gophers at Williams Arena on Tuesday — a Minnesota team desperate for a win to get back in the NCAA Tournament discussion — would give Iowa a fourth consecutive road win for the first time since 1986-87 and five Big Ten road wins overall for the first time since 1997-98.

These are big games when it comes to seeding, both in the Big Ten Tournament and NCAA Tournament. And it’s a chance for this team to walk the walk.

Rick Brown is a 10-time Iowa Sportswriter of the Year and covers Hawkeye basketball for the Register. Follow him on Twitter: @ByRickBrown.

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Category: Iowa Hawkeyes men's basketball

About Rick Brown: Rick Brown covers men's basketball for The Des Moines Register and Hawk Central. He's married and the father of two. He also covers golf for the Register. View author profile.

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