DAYTON, Ohio – It was way back in September when Iowa’s basketball team had its first close-but-so-far experience of the 2013-14 season.
Iowa coach Fran McCaffery had offered elite point guard Tyler Ulis a scholarship in July 2012 and put in countless hours chasing his prize Class of 2014 recruit. He looked to be in great shape, too, holding the edge in a two-team race with mighty Michigan State.
But with the game about won, Kentucky entered the picture. Coach John Calipari, who had lost point guard Emmanuel Mudiay to SMU, offered Ulis a scholarship less than a month before he committed to the Wildcats.
That recruiting experience set the tone for a season that ended with an overtime loss to Tennessee in an NCAA first-round game Wednesday in Dayton, Ohio. Iowa’s 20-13 season was so close to being special, and ended up so far from what players and coaches worked for or wanted.
Maybe it was the Tyler Ulis Effect.
Iowa led for 39 of regulation’s 40 minutes against Tennessee. The Hawkeyes had a one-point lead and possession with 80 seconds to go, but couldn’t make the shot or get the key stop when it mattered most.
Just like the movie “Groundhog Day,” that script repeated itself throughout the season. Iowa was 2-8 in games decided by five points or less or in overtime, including losses in the final seven.
In the sixth game of the season, Iowa rallied from a 15-point second-half deficit to beat Xavier in overtime in the first round of the Battle 4 Atlantis. That turned out to be the exception, not the rule.
Two nights later, Villanova rallied from a double-digit deficit to tie Iowa on a 3-pointer with 49 seconds to play and won in overtime. At Iowa State, Iowa had an 82-77 lead with 1:29 left and got outscored the rest of the way, 8-0.
Had Iowa beaten Iowa State or Villanova or both, would this season’s script have changed?
Iowa still worked its way into the Associated Press Top 10 after that, and spent 15 weeks rated.
Against Michigan State on Jan. 28, in front of an electric home crowd, Iowa had two shots to beat the Spartans, playing without two starters, at the end of regulation.
But Devyn Marble’s floater in the lane was off, and Melsahn Basabe hurried a rebound attempt and missed. Michigan State won in overtime. Again, opportunity lost. Momentum stuffed.
But the most crushing, and lingering, loss of the season in my book was a 79-74 setback to Wisconsin at Carver-Hawkeye Arena on Feb. 22. Up a point with less than 40 seconds to play, it was a loss this team never recovered from.
It had been preceded by an 85-67 blitzing of Michigan at home, a game in which Iowa led by as many as 27 points against a team that would win the Big Ten regular-season title by three games, and a workmanlike 82-70 victory at Penn State.
Iowa entered that Wisconsin game one game back of Michigan and Michigan State in the loss column. They left it all on the floor that afternoon against the Badgers. But the ultimate reward – victory – eluded them. A team that had never lost back-to-back games at that point of the season would lose seven of its last eight.
The effort Iowa brought that day against Wisconsin wasn’t matched until Wednesday’s loss to Tennessee, when McCaffery’s team left it all on the floor. Defense and rebounding are effort statistics. Iowa came up short in both of those areas in its post-Wisconsin swoon.
In a seven-game stretch starting with Wisconsin and carrying through a stunning 67-62 loss to Northwestern in the first round of the Big Ten Tournament, opponents shot a collective 52 percent from the field and averaged 77.4 points against a defense that had no answers. And after being outrebounded just once in its first 12 Big Ten games, Iowa got outrebounded in five of the last seven.
Iowa’s swagger was sapped, and that carried over to the offense. The Big Ten’s highest-scoring offense failed to crack 70 in its last three games. That happened just four times in the previous 30 games.
And the team’s impressive transition game slowed to a crawl. Rebounding, which ignites the fast break, was a missing ingredient. And the fact that teams were making more than half their shots limited transition opportunities.
The effort was there Wednesday. Iowa had no turnovers after halftime. None. Three of six first-half turnovers were on the offensive end — a charge and two illegal screens.
Iowa led by as many as 12 points in the first half, and fought off rally after Volunteer rally down the stretch. Iowa was called for 28 fouls to 14 for a physically superior Tennessee team that forced contact and got a friendly whistle on its offensive end. Iowa’s tank was empty in overtime.
Afterwards in the locker room, players looked exhausted. Heads were down. There were a few tears.
The Hawkeyes can still hang their hats on back-to-back 20-win seasons and the program’s first NCAA bid in eight years. But a season with great expectations didn’t make it to the finish line.
Rick Brown is a 10-time Iowa Sportswriter of the Year and covers Hawkeye football and basketball for the Register. Follow him on Twitter: @ByRickBrown.