The last week of Iowa basketball is best summarized in a single word: frustrating. Everything about the losses to Purdue and Illinois was frustrating. It’s safe to say the players and coaches are frustrated as well. The emotion in Sunday night’s loss showed us nothing if not that this team is feeling some of the same things it’s fanbase is feeling.
Tuesday’s home loss to Purdue was frustrating on a number of levels. For a team that’s been widely regarded as having the best mental makeup in the Fran era, they played incredibly flat in what should have been one of the easiest games of the season for the team to be energized. Purdue has taken the Hawkeyes to the cleaners in West Lafayette and it was senior night. Nobody expected to see Iowa get out worked and out muscled in the middle and all over the glass.
But at the end of the day, it was one home loss in the entirety of the Big Ten season and it didn’t cost Iowa the double bye in the Big Ten Tournament. Enter: Sunday’s contest at Illinois.
In the first matchup in Iowa City, the Hawkeyes looked superior to Illinois. But the post game antics by the Illini players and staff meant the rematch was going to be heated. With the double bye on the line, it was going to boiling over.
All season, the conventional wisdom has been such an environment is where this Iowa team thrives. Luka Garza seems to revel in being the bad guy for opposing fan bases. CJ Fredrick doesn’t take anything from anyone and he’ll be sure to tell you about how he drilled that 3 in your eye.
But on Sunday night, after jumping out to a 10-point first half lead, this same Iowa team let Illinois back into the game. Then, just when the crowd was really becoming a factor and things got on the plus side of chippy, the response was different. It wasn’t that Iowa backed down, per se, but they certainly didn’t step up in a way most Iowa fans have come to expect.
That was frustrating.
While not to hear the same level as we saw in either of Iowa’s matchups with Purdue, Hawkeyes fans were no doubt irked by the rebounding issues again present on Sunday. While Iowa actually out-rebounded Illinois 32-30 overall, the Illini nabbed 12 offensive rebounds. They had just 7 second chance points, but forced Iowa to play defense for over a minute straight a number of times. Even without points on those particular possessions, that wears on a team mentally and physically.
Most frustrating, perhaps, were the two separate 3 minute plus scoring drought that came in the midst of that barrage of offensive rebounds for Illinois. The Fighting Illini went on an 11-0 run in just over 3 minutes, expanding their lead to its largest at 16. Minutes later, Iowa had cut into the lead a bit, but then went on another 3 minute drought while Illinois built the lead back to 15.
During those difficult scoring periods, the offense often looked non-existent. There were open looks, but in a drought it’s diff to justify shooting from 25 feet instead of working for an easy look in the paint. It’s really difficult to justify when you have the national player of the year in the paint looking to build on his game-high 28 points. It’s frustrating to not have set plays drawn up to avoid those long droughts or at minimum, players working for looks close to the time.
That should have been especially easy given the style of defense Illinois employs. It’s a style that’s given Iowa fits for years and the fact the team can’t seem to overcome it is another building frustration. The Illini, with their quickness in the backcourt, play a style reminiscent of Michigan State. They grab and hold and over pursue on every cut. CJ Fredrick player the entire game with one hand literally held by a defender. That’s the perfect defense to back door to death. Instead we saw none of it.
In the end, the scoring droughts and the offensive rebounding left Iowa just short. They had a chance to tie or win in a hostile environment, but they couldn’t close the deal. The double bye dream is dead. A top-6 seed in the NCAA Tournament now is in question.
The Hawkeyes have a date with the winner of Northwestern and Minnesota in the middle of Thursday afternoon. Perhaps the most frustrating part of the last week is the doubt now creeping into everyone’s mind. Fans clearly feel it. Did the February Fade just get delayed?
Players seem to be feeling it too. Joe Wieskamp, while looking somewhat more comfortable pulling the trigger in Champaign, finished with just 7 points on 2-9 shooting. He’s been feeling that doubt for weeks and it won’t go away until he can break out of the slump. That didn’t happen Sunday night.
Instead, he and Fredrick combined for just 10 points in a combined 65 minutes. Bakari Evelyn and Joe Toussaint poured in 22 points in just 41 minutes. Fredrick and Wieskamp went 3-13 from the floor while Toussaint and Evelyn went 7-11. It’s hard not to doubt Fran’s minutes allocation when you look at the numbers in retrospect.
With the season officially in the rear view mirror, there will be plenty of time for that. Unfortunately, this last week has changed the tone of the entire season. The doubt is there for what lies ahead and despite the better than expected season as a whole, it’s hard to feel anything other than frustrated by the lack of closing by a team that was supposed to be different.