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Pat Harty: Fans — and columnist — seeking answers to Hawkeye mystery

[ 0 ] March 9, 2014 |

At the risk of stating the obvious, the honeymoon is over for Iowa men’s basketball coach Fran McCaffery.

It ended the moment Jon Ekey swished a 3-pointer in the final second to lift Illinois to a stunning 66-63 victory over the Hawkeyes on Saturday at Carver-Hawkeye Arena. Iowa’s Senior Day was ruined by a fifth-year senior, who transferred to Illinois after playing the previous four seasons at Illinois State.

Some will argue that McCaffery’s honeymoon ended two or three weeks ago when Iowa began what has turned into a startling decline.

The same Iowa team that was 8-4 in the Big Ten and just one loss out of first place after a victory at Penn State on Feb. 15 now looks lost after losing five of its last six games.

The same Iowa team that was thought to be loaded with depth and experience now rarely has two or three players performing well at the same time.

It would have been close to impossible to find an Iowa fan who questioned anything about McCaffery’s coaching when the season started. He was Fran the Man, the answer to Iowa’s near decade-long woes on the hard-court.

He still might be the answer, but more and more fans are starting to wonder.

That was obvious from the responses to my column after the Illinois game in which I told fans to let the season play out before burying this team. The prevailing theme was that I’m a fool and a spineless homer for still thinking that McCaffery could salvage this season.

My initial thought was how quickly some have turned on McCaffery. Iowa’s current skid is the only time during McCaffery’s near four-year reign that the program hasn’t been moving in the right direction.

McCaffery inherited a mess and began cleaning it up right away, first with his energy and enthusiasm and then by winning games.

Iowa’s march to a runner-up finish in the National Invitation Tournament last season had many believing the program already had made it over the hump and would continue to climb this season.

But something has happened on the way to the summit.

Iowa’s flaws have been exposed.

Some fans have no interest in letting the season play out. They’ve lost faith in the team and are starting to lose faith in McCaffery.

An Iowa fan called me Sunday morning to say the loss to Illinois on Senior Day was the final straw. He felt it was inexcusable the way Iowa performed.

He wants answers for why Iowa finished 5-4 at home in the Big Ten this season. He wants answers for why Iowa’s three seniors all failed to rise to the occasion against a lower-division Big Ten team on Senior Day. He wants answers for why Iowa came out so flat against Illinois and fell behind 20-6 despite the support of a raucous crowd.

He mostly just wants to know what happened to derail this Iowa team.

And though I still think Iowa is capable of making a run in the Big Ten Tournament, McCaffery’s rebuilding job isn’t as far along as once thought.

Iowa’s inability to shoot from the perimeter, coupled with its inability to stop opponents from making shots from the perimeter are two problems that have festered throughout the season.

Iowa’s lack of quickness on the perimeter also has been exposed, especially on defense. Landing junior college point guard Trey Dickerson, who committed to Iowa on Saturday, should help to address that problem, but not until next season.

You also have to question Iowa’s mental toughness. McCaffery was asked after Saturday’s loss why his team started so poorly.

“I think it’s a couple things,” McCaffery said. “It’s fatigue a little bit. I think we’re a little bit fragile. I think that’s safe to say.”

Fragile is another way of saying that Iowa is vulnerable from a mental standpoint.

Senior guard Devyn Marble has been Iowa’s best most consistent player, but that wasn’t the case Saturday night. Marble was held to eight points on 3-of-11 shooting from the field.

The fact that he struggled on Senior Day and when the team desperately needed a victory is hard to explain.

This Iowa team is hard to explain.

How can it pound Big Ten regular-season champion Michigan by 18 points at home barely a month ago and then lose two of its next three home games? Iowa looked like a Big Ten contender when it crushed the Wolverines on Feb. 8, but hasn’t looked that way since.

It’s a mystery that might not get solved before time runs out on the season.

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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