Fran McCaffery has thrived as a college basketball coach for more than two decades by rebuilding struggling programs one carefully planned step at a time.
Now the question is, can he rebuild or reignite his current Iowa squad before time runs out on what has turned into a disastrous end of the season?
It seems highly unlikely based on Iowa’s listless one-and-done showing in the Big Ten Tournament.
Thursday’s 67-62 loss to lowly Northwestern in the first round at Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis was the latest painful example of how far the Hawkeyes have fallen.
Nothing against the pesky Wildcats. Sometimes they do get the maximum out of their limited talent, as was the case Thursday, but they’re still mediocre at best. Northwestern also was without one of its top players in junior guard JerShon Cobb, out for the remainder of the season with an injury.
And yet, Iowa still found a way to lose for the sixth time in the last seven games, and to a team that it defeated by 26 points twice during the regular season.
What’s ironic is that Iowa (20-12) is likely to make the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2006, but it’s hard to celebrate when your season is unraveling.
Iowa’s offense has regressed to where it’s either all-Big Ten senior guard Devyn Marble trying to create his own shot against two and three defenders, or somebody else launching a 3-pointer, many times an ill-advised trey early in the shot clock.
Iowa missed 18 of the 24 3-point shots it attempted against Northwestern on Thursday. Iowa’s guards were a combined 1-of-17 from 3-point range in the game.
So it’s hard to understand why a team with Iowa’s season-long shooting woes would take that many 3-pointers against an opponent that wasn’t very tall or athletic. Seven of Iowa’s first eight shots against Northwestern were from 3-point range, with all but one missing the target. The Hawkeyes also missed all nine of their 3-point shots in the second half, while Northwestern made 6-of-11 treys after halftime for a difference of 18 points.
It’s also hard to understand why Iowa didn’t press the depleted Wildcats more during Thursday’s game. Iowa is supposedly built to press with its depth and length, and yet it rarely happened until the situation became desperate at the end.
Northwestern used only seven players, and one of them played only two minutes. So it’s reasonable to think that fatigue could have became an issue if Iowa had pressed more.
Pressing often creates turnovers and that leads to easy baskets in transition, which was a strength for Iowa earlier in the season. Junior forward Aaron White clearly is more comfortable scoring in transition than in a half-court set.
But it’s hard to score in transition when your team struggles to get stops on defense.
Northwestern shot 52.3 percent from the field Thursday, marking the fourth time in the last six games that an opponent has shot at least 50 percent against the Hawkeyes. The Wildcats also made 11-of-23 3-pointers, with several coming right before the shot clock expired.
“You’ve got to tip your hat to a team that shares the ball in a way to make 11 3s,” McCaffery said. “They weren’t just dribbling down and shooting it. They were moving the ball and running stuff, whether it was against man or zone, and finding each other.”
Iowa, on the other hand, shot only 25 percent from 3-point range against Northwestern on Thursday. That marked the eighth time this season that Iowa has made fewer than 30 percent of its 3s against a Big Ten opponent.
But if we’re to believe some fans, Iowa’s current skid goes way beyond putting the ball in the basket and stopping opponents from doing the same.
One theory that’s gaining steam on message boards and on social media is that something hidden below the surface must be causing Iowa’s collapse. The thinking is that a team doesn’t just go from playing at the level to which Iowa soared in mid-February when it was 18-6 to being arguably the worst team in the conference a month later without some kind of dysfunction among the players.
McCaffery said after Thursday’s loss that his conversation with the players in the locker room was positive and that he still believes in his team and its character.
But McCaffery also sounded like a coach who’s searching for solutions to questions that are beyond his team’s capability to answer.
“There’s no magic formula,” he said. “You just have to keep working. What we’ve said over these last two weeks is you work your way out of things like this. You don’t talk your way out of it. You don’t fake your way out of it. You work your way out of it and you stay positive.”
“We’ll stay positive as coaches, but we’ll stay positive with one another. You can’t start pointing fingers and blaming each other.”
Unfortunately, it’s too late to say that to some of the fans.
Category: Iowa Hawkeyes men's basketball