By Pat Harty
IOWA CITY, Iowa - There is an undeniable toughness that is carrying the Iowa men’s basketball team to unexpected success, but there is also a softer side to the team that surfaced after Sunday’s 72-65 victory over Illinois.
Sophomore Joe Wieskamp was being interviewed by the media after the game when he apologized if his dunk with 12 seconds remaining, and with Iowa leading by eight points, offended anybody.
It was a class act by the soft-spoken Muscatine native, but unnecessary in my opinion because Wieskamp did nothing wrong.
He wasn’t trying to rub the loss in the face of the Illinois players. It was more a case of Wieskamp showing some rare emotion once the outcome to a critical Big Ten matchup was finally decided.
Wieskamp also thought that Iowa was only leading by five points, instead of by eight points when he dunked the ball.
“I think it was just the whole game it built up, a lot of emotion, obviously,” Wieskamp said. “You could feel it from the fans, but also just them being in your space the whole game. It gets frustrating, so to finally being able to let loose and throw one down felt really good.”
Illinois entered Sunday’s game leading the conference in scoring defense, allowing just 60.1 points per game.
Third-year head coach Brad Underwood has instilled a toughness in his players, much like Fran McCaffery has with his team, and sometimes, emotions spill over.
Both head coaches, not surprisingly, tried to downplay the controversy at the end.
“There has been a softness and we’ve been a pushover,” Underwood said. “Not doing that anymore. I don’t know what happened at the end. I think that’s probably more words than anything else.”
Fortunately, it was more words than anything else, but no thanks to Illinois assistant coach Ron Coleman, who got in Fran McCaffery’s face during the post-game handshake line because Coleman apparently was upset about Wieskamp’s dunk.
Fran McCaffery wasn’t having any of that, so he ordered his players to head to the locker room to keep the incident from escalating.
Sophomore guard Connor McCafferym who is Fran McCaffery’s son, blamed official Mike Eades for not calling a foul when Illinois guard Ayo Dosunmu was grabbing and reaching for a steal in the final seconds.
“I didn’t say anything to Ayo and he didn’t say anything to me,” Connor McCaffery said. “And then I’m walking to the bench and then Eades starts talking to me, and I’m like, yo, you’ve got to call that. If you don’t want this to happen, you’ve got to call that.
“If they want to foul down seven with four seconds, that’s fine. We’ll go make free throws and this will all be diffused. But if you don’t call that this what’s going to happen. And that’s what I said to him and I was screaming at him the whole time.”
Connor McCaffery then pointed out that Eades is the same official that worked last season’s game against Iowa State, which also ended under similar circumstances.
“I don’t know what he’s trying to prove by not calling anything there,” Connor McCaffery said. “It’s unfortunate, but I guess that’s what ended up happening.”
There is some truth to what Connor McCaffery said, although, the Big Ten Conference probably won’t like that he singled out an official for public criticism.
The ending to Sunday’s game shouldn’t overshadow the fact that two nationally ranked teams on the rise battled from start to finish in a classic Big Ten matchup, and before a sellout crowd at Carver-Hawkeye Arena.
“Every night is ultra-competitive,” Underwood said. “If you don’t bring it, one casual moment can cost you the game. And we’re asking 18 to 22-year olds to go out and fight every night. That’s what makes this league so good.”
The players actually deserve credit for keeping their composure at the end, while some of the adults failed to do that, namely Coleman and fellow assistant Illinois assistant coach Stephen Gentry, who also got in Fran McCaffery’s face during the post-game handshake.
Let’s just be happy that the incident didn’t escalate because that would have shifted the narrative from what happened on the court.
Both teams have reason to be proud and excited about what they have accomplished this season.
The key now is to move on from this because both teams still have nine conference games remaining, and the 20-game conference grind shows no mercy.
Luka Garza continued his incredible junior season by scoring 25 points despite a slow start offensively, while Wieskamp and redshirt freshman guard C.J. Fredrick both finished with 18 points.
This Iowa team is for real, and toughness has lot to do with its unexpected rise without two injured starters, including senior point guard Jordan Bohannon..
But there is a nicer side to this team, too, as Wieskamp showed afterwards, even though it wasn’t necessary.