By Pat Harty
IOWA CITY, Iowa – With records of 3-10 in the Big Ten and 12-14 overall, the Iowa men’s basketball team is heading nowhere significant, barring a miracle.
Any chance of making the NCAA Tournament, outside of winning the Big Ten Tournament, is long gone, while the chance of making the National Invitation Tournament is hanging by a thread.
Iowa has five Big Ten games left, beginning with Saturday’s contest at conference leader Ohio State, and at least one game in the Big Ten Tournament to salvage something out of a season that began with so much promise, but then quickly started to unravel with six losses in the first 10 games.
Iowa still hasn’t won back-to-back games in the Big Ten this season, and its longest winning streak of the season at five games was preceded by a four-game losing streak and followed by a three-game losing streak.
This marks the first time in eight seasons under Fran McCaffery that Iowa has regressed significantly and failed by a long shot to meet expectations.
Last year’s team didn’t make the NCAA Tournament, but it won 19 games, finished 10-8 in the Big Ten and barely missed making the Big Dance despite starting four freshmen.
It only made sense to think that the current team would be better, even without Peter Jok leading the way.
But it just hasn’t happened for lots of reasons, including Jok’s absence. There is a huge void without his leadership, swagger, experience, and most importantly, his scoring ability, that some probably underestimated heading into the season.
It is only natural to ask what a team in Iowa’s position has to play for as it heads down the back stretch with most of its primary goals now gone, barring a miracle run in the conference tournament.
The answer is easy and can be summed up in three words: pride and respect.
Each by itself is a powerful motivator, but they usually go hand-in-hand, especially in athletics.
Part of having pride is wanting respect and the Iowa players can at least earn those two things if they play hard and with a purpose in these final games.
Because if they don't play that way, the season could collapse, if it hasn't already.
The near-upset against No. 4 Michigan State this past Tuesday was an encouraging sign, at least on offense where sophomore forward Tyler Cook scored 26 points, while Bohannon chipped in with 17 points and five 3-point baskets.
It’s hard to call it a moral victory, though, because Iowa should be above having moral victories this far into McCaffery’s reign.
But at least it wasn’t a mismatch like the Purdue game on Jan. 20 when Iowa trailed 40-17 and never was competitive.
“When we got back to the locker room I told the guys this just proves that we can play with anybody in the country, I don’ care who’s in front of us,” Iowa point guard Jordan Bohannon said after the Michigan State loss. “We just have to have that mindset going forward in each game, no matter our record, no matter our opponent’s record, we can play with anyone.”
This season has certainly been a frustrating and maddening experience for the fans, so imagine how the players must feel.
A victory over the surprising Buckeyes wouldn’t have much effect on Iowa’s overall standing, but it sure would feel good and would give the players a big shot of confidence heading into another tough road game at Michigan next Wednesday.
The Ohio State players should be sky high after winning at Purdue this past Wednesday, so maybe they take the struggling Hawkeyes lightly.
Maybe they get so wrapped up in their own incredible story under first-year coach Chris Holtmann that they don’t take Iowa serious enough, or by the time they do, it’s too late.
Ohio State already has defeated Iowa once this season, winning 92-81 on Jan. 4 at Carver-Hawkeye Arena.
The Buckeyes were thought to be in a rebuilding phase under Holtmann, but star senior forward Keita Bates-Diop had other plans.
The 6-foot-7 Bates-Diop was mostly overlooked heading into the season after a stress fracture limited him to just nine games last season. But he has been a force throughout the season and is probably the favorite to win Big Ten Player of the Year.
McCaffery said Friday on a teleconference that Holtmann deserves a lot of credit for Ohio State’s sudden turnaround, but that he is also fortunate to have a healthy Bates-Diop.
“I think the people that analyze missed,” McCaffery said. “You forget how good that kid is. If you’ve got the Player of the Year, you’re going to be at the top of the league.”
Bates-Dip scored 27 points and grabbed 13 rebounds in the first game against Iowa. The Buckeyes also shot 53.0 percent from the field in the first game and were one of five teams to score at least 90 points against Iowa this season.
Iowa vs. Ohio State
When: Saturday, 5:07 p.m.
Where: Value City Arena, Columbus, Ohio
TV: Big Ten Network
All-time series: Ohio State and Iowa have played 158 games, dating back to 1915, with the all-time series tied, 79-79 (results do not reflect vacated Ohio State wins due to NCAA sanctions). Twenty-four of the last 35 meetings have been decided by 10 points or less. Ohio State holds a 48-28 advantage in games played in Columbus. The Hawkeyes have won two of the last three contests played at Value City Arena. Iowa was the first opponent to win at the Value City Arena, taking a 71-68 win in 1999.