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Pat Harty: Iowa’s season rides on one game

[ 0 ] March 18, 2014 |

Under most circumstances, one victory wouldn’t make or break a college basketball season.

But for the slumping Iowa men’s basketball team, which has lost six of its last seven games, a victory over Tennessee in the first round of the NCAA Tournament would help to change how this up-and-down season is remembered.

It would help to soften the blow of seeing Iowa’s once-promising season unravel down the stretch.

It would show fans that the players still are united despite the current skid.

It would give Iowa’s three seniors, Devyn Marble, Zach McCabe and Melsahn Basabe, who were there at the beginning of Fran McCaffery’s rebuilding project in 2010, another chance to play for the Hawkeyes.

It would give McCaffery’s 13-year old son, Patrick, a reason to smile following his surgery Wednesday morning to remove a tumor on his thyroid.

And it would put this Iowa team in select company as the first Hawkeye men’s squad to win an NCAA Tournament game since Iowa defeated Creighton 69-56 in 2001.

But it won’t happen unless the Hawkeyes figure out why in a month they’ve gone from being a Big Ten contender to arguably the worst team in the conference.

Shoddy defense is largely to blame for Iowa’s collapse. Making shots has been a problem for Iowa throughout the season, whereas defense only became an issue recently. The first sign of trouble came in back-to-back losses to Minnesota and Indiana in late February in which Iowa surrendered 95 and 93 points, respectively.

“It’s a lack of focus, I think,” McCabe said when asked about Iowa’s recent defensive woes at a Tuesday news conference. “Not doing what we need to do. And, I mean, it’s kind of just killed us the last couple of games. We just have to get back to the basketball we were playing, playing together as one unit.”

Rebounding also has been a problem for Iowa during the current skid, although, the Hawkeyes had a 37-29 advantage on the boards against Northwestern last Thursday and still lost. Tennessee is ranked 18th nationally in offensive rebounding at 13.7 per-game. Keeping the Volunteers off the boards will be more challenging than what Iowa faced against Northwestern because Tennessee’s players are more athletic.

The odds of Iowa making a run in the NCAA Tournament by shooting better than its opponents are slim to none.

The Hawkeyes could catch fire against Tennessee and shoot their way to a victory because anything is possible once. But don’t count on it. Tennessee’s opponents have shot just 40.8 percent from the field this season.

So it’s hard to picture an Iowa team that has struggled to make shots suddenly getting hot in the biggest game of the season and against an opponent that uses its quickness to excel on defense.

Wednesday’s game in Dayton, Ohio, will match contrasting styles, as Tennessee plays at a much slower pace than Iowa does on offense. Tennessee’s offense is similar to what Northwestern runs, only with better athletes and worse shooters.

The Iowa players will have to stay focused and committed to playing defense for longer stretches against an opponent that relies heavily on dribble penetration.

Victorious in five of its last six games, Tennessee will try to keep a good thing going, while Iowa hopes to stop the bleeding.

There is a faction of fans who are convinced that Iowa is beyond repair and that Wednesday’s game is only delaying the inevitable.

If that truly is the case, it’ll probably be apparent right away on defense.

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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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