If a Hollywood writer were putting together a script for this Iowa basketball team’s season, it would have looked much like what we saw for the first 27 games of the year. There would have been ups and downs, drama and learning moments. The incredible comebacks and buzzer-beaters we saw over the span of 2 weeks may have been a bit much, but even the harshest of critics could have handled it.
As the season nears an end, that same writer would have likely put together a script much like what Hawkeye fans envisioned for this final stretch. It would have included a team coming together and overcoming the adversity of the last few weeks. After playing poorly and managing to survive, they would have rallied around their leaders to persevere. An imaginative writer may even have scripted the loss and following drama at Ohio State on Tuesday just to make things more interesting.
But you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone other than a Greek tragedy writer to script what we saw in Carver-Hawkeye Arena on Saturday. On a day when any other writer would’ve been focused on the story lines of Nicholas Baer and the passion and effort he has always played with, we instead saw a team play with none of those on Saturday. But this couldn’t have been a Greek tragedy script - Rutgers survived and thrived inside Carver-Hawkeye. It was only Iowa who appeared dead.
No, this was not anything anyone would have scripted. It was reality, and it’s time for a hard dose of it. This past week was just that and as a Hawkeye fan, it was not at all pretty. It hasn’t been for more than 3 weeks.
The storybook endings we saw previously didn’t necessarily mask it; there were signs things were not going well. But the fact the Hawkeyes were able to overcome the struggles appeared to be a positive rather than a negative. Every team in America slumps and being able to pick up wins in the midst of such a slump seemed to indicate this team was truly special.
It also made us believe this team was simply built differently. They seemed to have a mental makeup that would prove to be an incredible asset come March. The ability to play poorly for 35 minutes, but never be truly out of a game is something few teams in the country can boast. Now those traits seem like more of a hinderance than a benefit.
What we’ve seen over the last several games is a group of Hawkeyes showing little interest in actually playing basketball for much of the game. They’ve come out of the gate and shown a complete lack of effort or intensity. The defense has been nearly non-existent, looking more like a season ago than anything we’ve seen thus far this season. That has only been made worse by the abysmal shooting.
This Iowa team is very good offensively. They rank 11th nationally in adjusted offense. Through the game against Northwestern just over 3 weeks ago, the Hawkeyes were shooting over 47% from the field and nearly 38% from beyond the arc. Those are good numbers.
Those have fallen off a cliff during this recent stretch. Over the last 5 games, Iowa has shot less than 41% from the field and under 31% from deep. Those numbers are actually propped up by the trip to the RAC on February 16th. In nearly every one of those games, things looked worse statistically for the first 30+ minutes than the game as a whole.
It’s as if the late-game success has lulled this team into not only believe they are never out of a game, but that they don’t need to be in it at any point except the end. To watch that on Nicholas Baer’s senior day was appalling. Baer has become a fan favorite not because he’s the best player or the best athlete on the team, but because he always puts forth maximum effort. In a game where his teammates should have embodied those traits, they left him alone to put them on display for a sold out crowd.
Guards were beat off the dribble. Bigs got lost on ball screens. Nobody rebounded. Nobody rotated properly. Nobody reached shooters out of the zone. The team went more than 10 minutes without a field goal. Worst of all, nobody seemed to care. And nobody was there to light the fire under them.
It’s unlikely Fran McCaffery’s absence Saturday was the cause for that lack of fire. The slide began long before McCaffery was suspended for his antics against Ohio State. But that same fire that got him suspended certainly could have been put to good use Saturday afternoon.
Instead, the Hawkeyes lost their 3rd game in the last 4. They picked up their first loss outside the first quadrant. When the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee goes to work in a few short weeks, they’ll now see an Iowa team with a “bad loss.” They’ll also find an Iowa team that has fallen in all the rankings that will be used on their team sheets.
Saturday’s mishap cost the Hawkeyes 8 spots in the new NET rankings. They’ve dropped to 41, a far cry from the top-30 spot they held less than 2 weeks ago. In KenPom, they’ve fallen from the top 25 to 39th today. Their adjusted defense has gone from bad to worse, falling from 113 to 134th nationally.
Those precipitous drops have caused Iowa to slide in nearly every major prognosticator’s bracket. A few weeks ago, this team was poised to make a real run. They had overcome the adversity. They had shown a mental makeup we haven’t seen from the Hawkeyes before. They had an incredible opportunity in front of them. They were a near lock to win 23 regular season games. They were in a position to jump up to a 4 seed in the NCAA Tournament and the Big Ten Tournament.
Faced with that opportunity, this team did not rise to the occasion. They did not fight through the slump and come out stronger. Instead, they played without passion or effort. They played themselves into a 6 seed in the Big Ten tournament and likely an 8 or 9 seed in the NCAA Tournament. Or worse.
The play of this team over the last few weeks has frankly been embarrassing as an Iowa fan. Nicholas Baer embodies everything fans want in a Hawkeye. He plays with heart and hustle and the switch never goes off. His teammates cannot say the same. They’re paying for it in nearly every way now, and they deserve the rankings they’re now seeing.
It’s a hard dose of reality, but it’s one this team needs to face before things get even worse.
Happy Monday. Get after this week with some of those Baer necessities. Whether it’s in the office or at home, give it your all. Go Hawks.