By Pat Harty
CHICAGO – Just when you think you know the true identity of the Iowa men’s basketball team, it’ll fool you.
It’ll turn your beliefs upside down by doing what you least expect.
It’ll turn something good into something bad, or vice versa with little warning.
And that’s one reason to have some hope, and maybe even a little optimism, heading into Big Ten Tournament where sixth-seeded Iowa will face the winner of Wednesday’s game between Illinois and Northwestern on Thursday at the United Center in Chicago.
Some fans will certainly disagree with that glass-half-full approach because they already have given up on this Iowa team, which closed the regular season with four consecutive losses, including a 93-91 overtime loss in this past Sunday's regular-season finale at Nebraska where Iowa blew a 16-point lead in the second half.
It was a devastating loss because of how it unfolded on the court, but also because of the circumstances with Iowa having lost its previous three games.
Iowa still is considered close to being a lock to make the NCAA Tournament with a 21-10 overall record, and yet, it also could be in the midst of a meltdown that will only end when the season finally ends.
“It’s a new season,” said freshman forward Joe Wieskamp. “That’s kind of the mindset, focusing one game at a time.”
Some of the players also referred to the conference tournament as a clean slate and a chance to start fresh again.
That is the beauty of a conference tournament in that it gives teams a chance to redeem themselves in just a few days.
Iowa fans witnessed that in 2001 when the Hawkeyes won four games in four days to win the Big Ten Tournament title.
And just like now, there was no reason to expect a title run in 2001 because Iowa had lost seven of its final eight regular-season games.
The resurgence sort of just came out of nowhere and shows that almost anything is possible.
The 2000-01 season also marked the last time that the Iowa women’s basketball team had won the Big Ten Tournament title until this past Sunday.
The Iowa men’s basketball team was also seeded sixth in the 2001 Big Ten Tournament, as it is now, so maybe there is some karma at work.
Probably not, but a team that is struggling will take all the help it can get.
That’s why the Iowa players decided recently to stay off Twitter for the rest of the season to avoid the outside noise.
“It was starting to get a little bit more amped up, especially with everything going on," said sophomore center Luka Garza. “So I think it was just a good, clean decision. I wasn't on Twitter too much anyway."
As bad as things seem right now, this Iowa team still has shown that it can perform at a high level, especially when its 3-point shots are falling.
That is what has been missing during this late-season skid, and when Iowa isn’t making 3-point shots, it sort of has a domino effect. The offense bogs down and the defense becomes a sieve.
But with players like Wieskamp and junior point guard Jordan Bohannon and junior shooting guard Isaiah Moss, Iowa could catch fire from 3-point range at any time.
Bohannon has shown an uncanny ability to make big shots at pivotal times, and there are signs that he might be heating up again after some struggles. He has combined to make nine treys in the last three games, including 4-of-10 against Nebraska.
Bohannon’s shooting percentage hasn’t been great in those three games, but he is being aggressive and can get hot from 3-point range like few can.
Bohannon also has the luxury of playing off the ball this season due to the presence of redshirt freshman point guard Connor McCaffery.
“I think every time we take the floor, we know we have him, and that's an incredible weapon,” said Iowa coach Fran McCaffery. “Keep in mind, the teams were playing, they watch tape, too, so they're going to send two at him and trap him everywhere and beat him up off the ball, get real physical with him. So we've got to do a good job of freeing him up, taking some of the pressure off him with Connor, let him play off the ball a little bit, move him around. May be a little harder to figure out where he is.”
“But any time you have a guy like that, it's going to be a function of other guys performing, as well. If we can establish an inside game and a perimeter game. The other day, Joe was terrific, Isaiah and Garza were really good. Well, that's going to make it easier on Bohannon. If not, then it's going to be even more intense for him. But he knows that. We just want to be able to continue to spread the offense around as best we can.”
It’s hard to see Iowa going far in the conference tournament without junior forward Tyler Cook playing better than he has in the last two games.
Iowa’s leading scorer with a 15.0 per-game average was held scoreless in the 65-45 loss at Wisconsin last Thursday and only had nine points in the loss at Nebraska.
Iowa is a difficult team to beat when Cook, Garza and Bohannon are all playing well on offense.
And who’s to say that can’t happen at the conference tournament?
“My numbers haven’t great the last few games and that’s probably a byproduct, I guess, of our team not playing as well,” Cook said. “But I always say that’s the fun part. You get to figure out a way to get better and kind of get through it. So I’m just constantly trying to figure out how to combat that.”
The 6-foot-9, 250-pound Cook is a priority for opposing defenses, but Fran McCaffery saw some positive things from Cook in the loss at Nebraska.
"They're coming after him, they're picking him up early, they're doubling him, they're being physical with him,” Fran McCaffery said. “It's funny because you look at his numbers and say, well, he didn't shoot it well the last couple of games, but he still had nine and nine in the last game. I thought he did some good things off the dribble to create shots for others, and that's not something you typically think about with Tyler Cook.
“It's like, we're supposed to be making plays for you, but when you're getting defended like he is, you've got to make plays for other people, and he's doing that. So proud of him for that. He did get on the glass, had nine rebounds. So if we can get him going a little bit more offensively.”
Should that happen, along with Iowa’s perimeter shooters getting hot from 3-point range, this Iowa team could be dangerous.
Some fans will dismiss that suggestion, just like some did in 2001.