This seemed like it could be Iowa's game. That it wasn't is at once encouraging and infuriating.
It was strange--in a good way--the way Iowa kept Ohio State at arm's length for the entire game. With their long-range shots falling in the second half, Iowa had pushed their way to a 45-38 lead and the ball in the second-to-last media time out. On that possession, Brennan Cougill got the ball behind the arc and hoisted an open three that would have pushed the lead to 10 points. It was halfway down, but rimmed out; Evan Turner grabbed the rebound and sprinted the other way, and would quickly convert a layup to make the score 45-40.
After trading five points, though, the Hawkeyes' patented cold snap finally set in at the worst possible opportunity. Ohio State would rip off 12 straight points, and all of a sudden with under two minutes to go, the Buckeyes had a seven-point lead. Iowa wouldn't get back within four the rest of the way.
As the headline (and his nickname) would suggest, Evan Turner was the villain tonight; starting at the aforementioned rebound and layup, Turner--by himself--contributed 10 points, five rebounds, and three steals in just the last 6:54 of the game. By way of comparison, Iowa as a team managed just 12 points, four rebounds, and no assists in that same stretch.
"Collapse" isn't the right word for this loss; that would assume some sort of normally sound structural integrity that Iowa leads just don't have yet--especially not against a team like Ohio State, who would find room for roughly two Hawkeyes in their regular rotation if the teams merged. One of those two is Matt Gatens, who gamely worked through a sprained ankle for 38 rather unproductive minutes. The other is Eric May, who we'll get to in a second. That Iowa put together 33 solid, winning minutes of ball with this team is a testament to its resilience and improvement. That it came crashing down so swiftly and decisively in the last seven is a testament to the work remaining.
When we've been discussing what success will "look like" over the course of the season, this is pretty close to a shining example. If these two teams had played two months ago, Iowa would have likely looked lost and folded early; remember that UTSA treated Iowa far worse at Carver than OSU, and nobody would argue that the Roadrunners are on Ohio State's level. We've been saying that the key is to see improvement game-to-game and week-to-week, regardless of what it looks like in the box score. Well... here you go, right? 3-2 in their last five, and the two losses have both been full 40-minute contests with top 25 teams--and leads for nearly 50% of the minutes in those games! That's a pretty big deal, no?
At the same time, it would be foolish to assume this arc of improvement--however high/far it stretches--is linear. Iowa could still totally crap the bed this weekend in Ann Arbor. They're still a young team who'll be on the road in the BXI. These things will (probably) still happen.
The challenge, then, is to not let one bad game (whenever in the upcoming schedule it happens) invalidate the strides Iowa's made to this point. That goes for fans as well as the team; as much as you or I may notice how much better Iowa is compared to even a month ago, the coaches and players are undoubtedly acutely aware of it. Whether they can keep their focus on such an ethereal goal as "improvement" in the face of something discouraging like a 25-point loss will be crucial; let's at least do our parts and not over-the-fuck-react if/when it happens at some point.
But enough of that. Back to the game that was last night. The man of the match--for Iowa, anyway--was undoubtedly Eric May. Though we bristle at the thought that May would have taken 10 (ten, people!) three-pointers and two two-pointers in spite of his 27% average behind the arc, May brought his long game tonight. He went 5-10, with all five makes coming in the second half. Further, he wasn't relegated to just Bawinkeling his way between corners of the court; he also registered all three of Iowa's blocks of the game. Further, all three were in the paint, legit, and saved Iowa six points. He was M-A-N MAN, even if he uncorked some ludicrously distant threes (all misses) as the lead slipped away.
One more statistical oddity was Cougill--or as his native Sioux call him, Lumbering Bear Shouldbestarting. Economy Size got some pretty decent play tonight, spending 23 minutes on the court as Jarryd Cole labored in foul trouble before hacking his way to the bench for good. Cougill had one of the strangest lines we've seen in quite a while:
Yeah; you don't often see a guy go 0-5 from downtown while collecting nine rebounds. But on offense, without fail, The Big Galoot was out there at the perimeter, wisely trying to stay out of the way of the possession destroyer that was Ohio State's interior defense.
And really, that was more indicative of Iowa's performance than May's night; aside from May, this was a pretty lackluster offensive showing by the Hawkeyes. Their turnovers remained relatively in check--at least, until the last six minutes, when Ohio State clamped on the press and hounded Iowa out of the game--but the shooting was a train wreck. Iowa was 10-31 from behind the arc, meaning they scored fewer than one point per three taken (never a good sign), and inside they only went 10-24. All told, that's 35% shooting, and that's hardly what you want in an eminently winnable contest like this.
But offensive struggles aside, Iowa really was in this, and they weren't shooting great even while they were leading for the first 13 minutes of the second half. The fact that they're performing well enough to weather such lapses in efficiency is either A) a good sign for the future, or B) a completely unsustainable reaction in the fact of poor predictive metrics. In other words, do we look at the final scores or the underlying stats if we want to figure out where this team is going? And the short answer is we really don't know yet, though we think it's (A) based on how they've looked month-to-month.
In fact, you know who this team reminds us of? The 1999 and 2000 Iowa football teams. Sure, they were 1-10 and 3-9 and ludicrously overmatched, but the improvement was far more evident the more that stretch of play went on. Now, granted, that's football and not basketball, and it's not like Lickliter can turn his walk-ons and 2-star guys into All-Americans with practice and weight room time; that's just not how basketball works. Also, we're not suggesting Iowa's a couple weeks away from the Elite Eight or whatever the Orange Bowl corollary would be. That would be insane. Still, you get the sense that they're at the very least on the right track, and that though struggles will likely be forthcoming, so will be the reward of having a team stick together and really, just... get used to playing with itself. Wait, that came out wrong. All wrong. How do I delete on this thing? Damn it.
Anyway, this loss sucks. It has no bearing on any postseason plans--those are straight out the window by now--but watching it slip away sucks all the same. And the fact that it "sucks" rather than "is just an inevitable by-product of this team's awfulness" is, in its own not-immediately-gratifying way, encouraging.