For the first time in months, Hawkeye fans are waking up this morning without a men’s basketball game on the schedule this week. It’s a sad realization that may take some time to sink in. For those looking completely move on and avoid the thought, Lisa Bluder, Megan Gustafson and the Iowa women are headed to the Sweet Sixteen. They’re a hell of a lot of fun to watch and they deserve your attention. But what we saw from the men over the last week is worthy of your attention and admiration as well.
Each of the Hawkeyes two games was much like the season as a whole, and to some extent Fran’s career at Iowa. They were tales of two halves with one leaving the Hawkeye faithful scratching their heads, half in disappointment half in disgust, the other leaving them nearly jubilant and beaming with pride. Though unlike the season and Fran’s tenure, it was the second half of Friday and Sunday’s games that had Iowa fans excited.
In the first half of each, Iowa wasted little time looking like the team that collapsed late in the season, losing 6 of 8 to fall from 20-5 to 22-11. That team played almost no defense, made terrible decisions and turned the ball over at a maddening pace. It fell behind by as many at 13 against Cincinnati and an astounding 25 against Tennessee.
That’s the team we saw for almost all of the 2017-2018 season. It’s what fans and prognosticators alike have been bemoaning off and on for a good portion of Fran’s tenure, primarily during late-season collapses like the one we saw this year.
The difference both Friday and Sunday was the fire and fight we saw the Hawkeyes bring with them out of the locker room at halftime. That’s not something we’ve always seen in the past and was in stark contrast to the uninspired play for the first 20 minutes.
On Friday, that added intensity and focus on the defensive end led to a thrilling win in the round of 64. Coming off back-to-back seasons where the Hawkeyes didn’t make the NCAA Tournament, that may seem like a rarity. But in fact, Iowa has never lost a game in the round of 64 under Fran McCaffery. Their last loss in the round came back in 2006.
On Sunday, despite taking on the intensity of their head coach for the second half, a comeback seemed completely impossible. Tennessee was a superior team. They had an abundance of speed, athleticism and scoring. Iowa flailed hopelessly for 20 minutes trying to find a way to get anything going offensively and would have been nearly as effectively defensively if they attempted to stand on each other’s shoulders in front of the hoop.
Yet, unlike a season ago, this team didn’t quit. They came together with a newfound intensity and focus to start chipping away at the mountain. They refused to continue allowing the Volunteers to lean on them. The mindset change was no more visible than when early in the second half Tennessee big man John Fulkerson came in for another moving screen at the top of the key on Jordan Bohannon, Bohannon refused to be picked off and instead shoved Fulkerson out of the way.
It wasn’t a clean play and the foul he received was earned. But it set the tone. The Volunteers could continue holding Bohannon, they could continue hammering Luka Garza and Tyler Cook inside, but the Hawkeyes weren’t going to lay down and take it any more. They were going to fight and fight hard.
What ensued was nearly the greatest comeback in NCAA Tournament history. And while Iowa came up short, it was one of the most satisfying losses I can recall. There are no moral victories in high major college sports, but this was as close as you can get.
The Hawkeyes erased the 21-point halftime lead and had a few opportunities late in regulation to take the lead. Had they been able to do so, it’s not a stretch to think they would have carried that momentum to a win. Instead, they came up just short and took the game to the first overtime of this year’s tournament.
Tennessee, like in their last meeting with the Hawkeyes in the 2014 First Four, seemed to dominate the overtime period. Iowa never gave up, but the momentum they built over the final 20 minutes faded away. They stopped force-feeding the post and working the game inside-out and started settling for jump shots. And just like that, the season is over.
The story, though, was not the ending. The story was the fight for the ending to even be relevant. That fight is what Iowa fans want and expect out of their team. It’s what has made Nicholas Baer such a tremendous Hawkeye over the last 5 seasons. This was the kind of ending he deserved. Unlike the disastrous performance against Rutgers on senior day, which seemed to be where this one was headed, the team rallied around that fire Baer is known for and they fought hard through the final horn.
Playing for the Hawkeyes on the biggest stage was a dream come true for Nicholas Baer. His work ethic, passion, character, and enthusiasm was infectious.— Iowa Basketball (@IowaHoops) March 24, 2019
Thank you for five memorable years of being a Hawkeye!#Hawkeyes pic.twitter.com/XGkaTESaOi
As a fan, you have to wonder how special this season could have been, had that passion been there for a full 40 minutes, for a full season. This was a tremendously talented team. We saw incredible flashes of that, including the final 20 minutes of regulation on Sunday. But it also was a team that seemed to think it could turn it on and off when they wanted.
That’s a mindset that needs to change for next season. Just like this year’s group, next year’s looks to have phenomenal talent. While the loss of Baer will sting not only for his on-court contributions, but his locker room leadership, that’s the only senior slated to depart.
It’s certainly possible there are additional departures. Tyler Cook is likely to test the NBA waters again, and while it’s highly debatable whether he has taken the steps to be successful there, he seems determined to make a run at it. Connor McCaffery is a legitimate MLB prospect and it’s always possible he decides to pursue that full time. And there’s always the potential for guys getting fewer minutes than they’d like to decide to leave.
But the core is likely to be back, including Iowa’s new all-time leader in three-point shots made with Jordan Bohannon, a force in the low post with Luka Garza and a rising star on the wing with Joe Wieskamp. They also add in Jack Nunge off a redshirt season, as well as another knockdown shooter in CJ Fredrick and potentially another post in Cordell Pemsl if he proves healthy again.
That says nothing of the two incoming freshmen. Patrick McCaffery, while certainly in need of some bulking up, is a borderline top-50 recruit nationally, just like the aforementioned Cook and Wieskamp. If the youngest McCaffery can contribute anywhere close to what those two did as freshmen, that will be a major addition. Joe Toussaint is a four-star point guard from New York City who brings to the table exactly what this team has lacked in the backcourt. He’s lightning quick, a lockdown defender in man-to-man and can take it to the rim against just about anyone.
The pieces will all be there for next season to be every bit as successful as this one, if not moreso. The question now will be which team, mentally, will show up. Will it be the team that started the year 21-6? The team that came from behind to win some games in thrilling fashion during the season and never quit while down in two NCAA Tournament games? Or will it be the team we saw in 2017-2018 that reared its ugly head down the home stretch of this year and in the first half of the games Friday and Sunday?
The answer will determine how successful next year is. How successful next season is will go a long way to determining how Iowa fans think of Fran McCaffery and his tenure at Iowa.
Despite being the second winningest coach in program history and one of only a handful of coaches to ever take four different programs to the NCAA Tournament, McCaffery has plenty of critics. He came to Iowa City much the way these last two games ended - with fire, passion and a fanbase excited by what they saw. But the last few season have worn on the fanbase. Much like the first halves of those games, there’s been much to be desired and people are restless.
If that effort we saw Sunday afternoon is here to stay, next year’s team can go a long way. A run in the NCAA Tournament would go a long way to bringing some of those critics back to Fran’s side. If instead we see more of the effort we saw in the first half, next year’s group is likely to underperform and there may be more to drop off the bandwagon than hop on.
It’s a make or break season for Fran. He’s set up for it to be a make. But he’ll need to channel this weekend’s energy into an offseason of focus on defense, attention to detail and a long look in the mirror with regard to timeouts, personnel rotations and how to handle matchups where Iowa is out-gunned.
If he can do those things, 2019-2020 should be a tremendously phenomenal season. Given the mental makeup of the core group returning, expecting more of what we saw in the second half Friday and Sunday seems safe. Either way, there’s a good chance Hawkeye fans will be mad again.
Happy Monday. Thank you for the memories Nicholas Baer. Here’s hoping every Hawkeye team to the end of time plays with your heart.