Forget the Top-5 ranking, forget the Big Ten lead, and definitely forget the 1-seed talk until further notice. Iowa limped into Happy Valley on a recent stretch of playing like an NIT team and sure enough got beaten like an NIT team, losing in a sparsely-populated Bryce Jordan Center to lowly Penn State, 79-75. It's Iowa's first loss to a currently unranked team of the entire season, and its first loss without a lead in the last 10 minutes (or even in the second half at all, as it turns out).
Iowa's not good enough to let its opponent play with so much more energy and still expect to win. I mean, maybe if it's Rutgers, but Penn State has, if nothing else, played the entire season with a pulse. The Nittany Lions remain under .500 for the season and won't be experiencing any March Situations, but now two of their four B1G wins have come against conference co-leaders, having knocked off Indiana earlier.
Referees ground the game to a halt in the second half, and while Iowa was a more frequent beneficiary of the calls, it's really hard to put a run together if nobody's actually, you know, running. The game lacked any sense of flow, and I honestly couldn't tell you what Iowa was trying to do on offense in the second half since so many of the possessions ended in something other than a field goal attempt.
Even given numerous opportunities to make up the deficit at the line, Iowa was, sadly, characteristically average for the game and characteristically poor down the stretch. Iowa made 71% of its free throws for the game, and despite Jarrod Uthoff taking most of the free throws down the stretch, made just six of its last 10 attempts.
Excepting two late desperation heaves, Peter Jok had one of his worst three-point shooting performances of the season (he was 2-for-9 with 30 seconds left), and his hefty point total reflects a high level of possession usage as much as any efficiency. That's not to say the rest of the starters were setting the world on fire—the other four guys shot 10-for-29 from the field—but Jok's day was pretty brutal until the final seconds too.
Donovon Jack, of all people, led Penn State's upset charge with a career-high 19 points, which is ever so slightly higher than the senior's season average of 3.9 points per game. He was everything Iowa's bench mob was in January: aggressive, energetic and productive. He out-Iowa'd Iowa, essentially, and that's something that cannot continue.
Singling out one phase of the game is the wrong approach, though; there's more than enough blame for a loss like this, even as it was only by four points. Teams have begun to solve the zone trap defense with relative ease, even as Iowa leans on it more than ever, the defensive rebounding has been below-average (especially for a team that so reliably puts multiple big men on the floor) and the depth has disappeared.
But make no mistake: this was a whoopin'. Penn State led for the last 25 minutes of the game, thanks to a clinching 20-6 run late in the first half, and Iowa never had the ball with a chance to tie or take the lead in the last 11 minutes of the game. In fact, that was probably the pivotal moment of the game; Iowa had held Penn State scoreless on six straight possessions over four minutes, and the Hawkeyes managed to turn the opportunity into one whole point. Payton Banks hit a three-pointer to stretch the lead back to 51-45, and PSU was never seriously threatened again.
So, we're witnessing the worst stretch of Iowa basketball right as the team approaches the stretch run. That's not bitterness or overreaction; we're guessing the coaches and players would evaluate their play the same way. Either the team gets this all out of its system between now and next Wednesday's home tilt with a resurgent Wisconsin, or we're going down the same road as 2014's late-season horror show. It's gut check time.