By Don Lund
When you look back at the men’s basketball season and you see the Hawks won 20 games, finished 9-9 in the Big Ten and were ranked as high as 10th in the nation, you would have to say that’s not a bad season.
They also beat Ohio State when they were ranked third in the nation, beat Michigan when they were ranked 10th and made it to the NCAA tournament for the first time in a while.
All that says Iowa had a successful year, but when the Hawks lost seven of their last eight games it took the glitter off the season.
I had a chance to sit down with assistant coach Kirk Speraw last week and talk about the season, the seniors, returning players and new recruits.
“You look back on our season and I’m very proud of our guys and what they did and what they accomplished,” said coach Speraw. “You think back four years ago, where we were and to become nationally relevant, which is what we became this year.”
Iowa spent 16 weeks in the top 25 and were ranked as high as 10th in the nation.
“Certainly we didn’t finish the year they way we all would have liked to, especially when expectations started to rise,” said Kirk. “Everybody asked ‘What the heck happened?’ It was a matter of a few possessions here and there in all those games. You go to the Tennessee game and we executed well down the stretch but we couldn’t make a shot. They scored seven times with three seconds or less left on the shot clock. If they miss one of those seven shots, we win in regulation. We just didn’t execute well enough on some critical possessions coming down the stretch.
“I don’t think there is anything more than that and it was difficult on our guys,” he said. “You take the season as a whole and it’s another step forward.”
Iowa started the season winning its first seven games before losing to Villanova, 88-83, in overtime at the Battle 4 Atlantis in the Bahamas.
The Hawks led at half 42-33 but Aaron White (nine points), Mike Gesell (10 points) and Zach McCabe (14 points) all fouled out.
“It was a good start to the season,” said Kirk. “The thing that stands out about this team is that they were so unselfish. Everybody wants to play and everybody wants to play a lot but they shared the basketball, they moved the basketball and the team came before the individual. You enjoy coaching kids that have that kind of character.”
Iowa won three more games until losing on the road to Iowa State, 85-82.
“We should have been able to hit a few more free throws coming down the stretch,” said Kirk. “Iowa State had a great team and finished strong.”
Iowa led 82-77 with 1:26 remaining but couldn’t hold on to the 17th ranked Clones.
The Hawks ended the preseason 11-2 and were ranked 25th in the nation.
Iowa opened up the Big Ten season with a huge win at Ohio State, 84-74, when the Buckeyes were ranked third in the nation.
The Hawkeyes snapped an eight-game losing streak against the Buckeyes. Devyn Marble (22 points) and Aaron White (19 points) led the way.
“Our defense was outstanding in that game and we executed well,” said coach Speraw. “You go on the road in one of the tougher environments and played outstanding basketball for 40 minutes. I really felt like that was a great victory for our team mentally. I think it made a statement that we are that good.”
Iowa was 3-3 in the next six games when 10th ranked Michigan came to Iowa City on Saturday Feb. 8.
The Hawks took a 43-29 lead a halftime and never looked back.
Devyn Marble scored 22 of his game high 26 points in the first half and the Hawkeyes gave the Wolverines their worst loss of he season, 85-67.
“I think it was one of our best games of the year,” said Kirk. “We had a great environment, we jumped on them early and we kept them at bay. That was probably our best 40-minute stretch of basketball.”
Iowa won one of the next two and then got their game at Indiana delayed.
The Hawks were forced to play three games in one week and lost two of the three.
“It really changed the flow of things, playing three games in one week,” said Kirk. “We were walking down for pregame meal to get ourselves focused and we get a call, ‘hey, you’re not playing tonight’. Then our struggles started to come and we didn’t have the practice time to work on some of these things because the schedule was squeezed because of the change of the Indiana games.”
After the Indiana loss, the Hawkeyes beat Purdue and then lost the last four games to end the season.
I thought the 67-62 loss to Northwestern in the first round of the Big Ten Tournament was the toughest loss of the season.
Iowa had beaten the Wildcats 93-67 at home and 76-50 at Evanston during the regular season.
I know it’s tough to beat a team three times in a season and the ‘Cats were 6-11 (54.5 percent) in the second half, but I thought the Hawks were a better team.
It didn’t help that Melsahn Basabe and Mike Gesell each scored one point plus Adam Woodbury took only one shot and didn’t score.
“Almost everyone in the league went through a slump,” Kirk said. “Wisconsin, Ohio State, Michigan and Michigan State dropped a bunch. Our bad stretch came at the wrong time. We didn’t have an opportunity to overcome that.”
The Badgers started 16-0, then lost five of six while Michigan was 16-4 and started the Big Ten season 8-0. The Wolverines then lost three of their next five games.
Iowa’s depth helped them to a 20-9 record, 9-7 in the Big Ten, but in those last four games sometimes three or four players would not show up.
“Our depth had been good for most of the year and then for whatever reason, a couple of guys lost some confidence,” said the coach. “You go through stretches in any season when everybody’s playing well or not everybody’s playing well or a mixture of both of those.”
Iowa played Tennessee tough for most of the game and if it could have hit one more free throw or basket in regulation, I think they could have made it to the sweet 16 like the Volunteers.
The Hawkeyes would never use this as an excuse, but it had to be tough on the team when head coach Fran McCaffery’s son had the cancer surgery the day of the game.
“I thought our kids did a great job of handling that,” said Kirk. “But it was exceptionally emotional. I’ve never been a part of a more emotional practice when Fran and Margret told the team about Patrick. It was right in the middle of practice. We stopped practice and coach couldn’t even talk. It was Margret that told us what was going on with Patrick.”
Coach McCaffery was there for the preparation for Tennessee but left the night before to be with his son for his surgery.
It was a tough call before the biggest game of the year.
Life isn’t always fair, but Patrick came out okay, so in the big picture the loss to Tennessee was still just a game.
Next week, I’ll talk to coach Speraw about the seniors, the returning players and three new recruits.