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Iowa had the signature win of their non-conference schedule in their grasp... and then they didn't.

Reese Strickland-USA TODAY Sports

For 38 minutes, the Iowa basketball team did a lot of things right in their intense, high-energy, and thoroughly entertaining game with in-state rival Iowa State.  They outrebounded one of the best rebounding teams in the nation (49 to 35, 14 to 6 on the offensive glass), they were making their free throws (they made 14 of their first 18 attempts from the line), they were limiting turnovers (just 10 on the night to that point), and, perhaps most importantly, they were answering every Iowa State run with a run of their own.  Not everything was going their way -- they had been called for 24 fouls, leading to 30 Iowa State free throws, they had only forced 10 turnovers of their own, and they had been unable to prevent Iowa State from making some key 3s during the Cyclones' second half comeback -- but enough things had gone well for Iowa that a win was in their grasp.

Or to put it this way: Iowa led 82-77 with 1:29 to go after Adam Woodbury made one of two free throws.  At that point, Iowa had a win probability of over 90%, per KenPom ($$$).  Unfortunately, we know what happened next.  Iowa didn't score another point the rest of the game.  Iowa State ended the game on an 8-0 run, the only run of the game Iowa was unable to answer.  Iowa players missed their final four three throws: that second Woodbury freebie, the front end of a one-and-one from Roy Devyn Marble, and a pair of misses from Mike Gesell.  Meanwhile, Iowa State, who had made just 16/30 free throws prior to that point, drained their final six attempts from the charity stripe, with Georges Niang, Melvin Ejim, and Dustin Hogue all converting a pair apiece.  At >90% win probability, not many scenarios exist for Iowa to lose this game.  Unfortunately, they managed to find one of them, and so Iowa left Ames empty-handed, a chance at a signature non-conference win and NCAA Tournament resume booster having slipped through their fingers.

The hurt of this loss has lingered -- and likely will continue to linger -- for some time.  It's why I haven't been able to write this recap in a more timely fashion.  It's why this game will likely be one that Iowa fans keep going back to over the course of the season.  It wasn't just because it was a game against a major in-state rival in an utterly electric, remarkably frenzied atmosphere -- although that's certainly part of it.  This was the most hyped Iowa-Iowa State game in over 25 years (and just the second game all-time between the two rivals in which both were ranked) and, improbably, it not only lived up to the hype -- it probably surpassed it.  That's stunning.  No, it hurts more because this loss wasn't all that unique.

This wasn't the first time Iowa has let a winnable game against a quality opponent slip away.  There was the Villanova game in the Battle 4 Atlantis finals just a few short weeks ago.  There were the games against Michigan State last year.  The home loss to Indiana last year.  The road losses to Minnesota and Wisconsin.  Of course, there have been wins in games like that, too -- close games, winnable games.  This year alone, Iowa has prevailed over Xavier and Notre Dame in close games.  The bigger picture standpoint says you win some close games and you lose some close games -- that's just how it works.

And yet... not all close games are created equal.  Barring a dramatic change in fortunes for both teams, a win over Notre Dame this year doesn't mean as much as a win over Iowa State would (to say nothing of the home-road difference).  The average KenPom ranking of Iowa's two biggest non-conference scalps this year (Xavier and Notre Dame) is 51.5. By comparison, the average KenPom ranking of Iowa's biggest non-conference wins last year (Iowa State and UNI) was... 44.  The RPI rankings (per ESPN) cast things in an even starker light: Iowa's best wins there are Drake (61) and Xavier (70).  Notre Dame checks in at 132.  Villanova and Iowa State are ranked 7th and 11th in RPI, respectively -- getting a win over one of them would have been a huge boost for Iowa's resume.

This doesn't even touch on the intangible benefits that a win like this might have had; as I've already noted, Iowa has more losses in games like this than they do wins.  At what point does that start to weigh on the players on this team and become a burden?  Are Gesell and Marble going to have a lingering doubt in the back of their minds if they have to take key free throws late in the game against Wisconsin in the Kohl Center?  How much confidence might a win like this have given these players?  This team is loaded with experience... but it's not exactly dripping with experience when it comes to beating good teams.

In and of itself, Iowa's loss on Friday night -- a close loss in a game against a very good opponent, in an extremely hostile environment, in which they played (mostly) well -- is not a huge deal.  One loss like that is not the end of the world.  The silver lining of Iowa's challenging Big Ten schedule is that they'll have several opportunities to beat very good opponents.  But this loss was a significant missed opportunity (just like the collapse against Villanova was).

The conventional wisdom when projecting Iowa's season this year has been that they're a good team and that they would move up to the next level of success this year.  The conventional wisdom when looking at this loss seems to say that, given more opportunities in games like this, Iowa will naturally turn out some wins.  That's a comforting thought, but it's one that would be a lot easier to put stock in if Iowa would just start, you know, winning a game or two like this one.  Iowa is a team on the cusp of very good things; unfortunately, not every team on the cusp is actually able to ascend to that next level.

As for why Iowa keeps losing games like this... there's no shortage of reasons, including poor foul shooting late and and inability to get defensive stops at times, but the shutdown of Iowa's offense late in games has been a pretty consistent bugaboo for this team.  Iowa did get a good look for McCabe on a 3 that rimmed out in the last few seconds, but Iowa also had several possessions before that where they struggled to get any good looks and looked out of sync.  It's not a huge shock that Iowa's offense would look disjointed there because what they do in those situations is so antithetical to the way they work their offense for the other 95% of the game.  Iowa's average possession length this season is 14 seconds, 3rd shortest in the nation.  Late in games, the possession lengths for Iowa often double as they try to bleed clock and hold onto a lead.  Unfortunately, they're not very good at doing so. Iowa either needs to improve their performance in those situations and develop ways to get more good looks even when they aren't running their primary offense (which is challenging because Iowa has few guys able to get their own shots off) or they need to stick with their primary offensive approach and continue to attack at a fast pace.

Ultimately, you can certainly look at this game, see that Iowa had a >90% win probability with 90 seconds remaining and chalk up their loss as as a result of a pretty unique -- and incredibly unfortunate -- sequence of events.  (Or, if you're prone to cliches and superstitions, you could chalk it up to "Hilton magic.')  It would be a lot easier for me to do that if I had more evidence of Iowa actually being able to win games like this.

A few more thoughts...

  • Aaron White had a brilliant game: 25 points (on 11/15 shooting), 17 rebounds, and an assist, a block, and a steal.  It wasn't all perfect (he had an extremely costly turnover with 0:48 seconds remaining and his 11/15 shooting performance obscured the fact that he only attempted two free throws), but it was still his finest performance of the season and one of the best in his Iowa career; it's just a shame that it wasn't in service of an Iowa victory.
  • Adam Woodbury also had his best game of the season, scoring 5 points, grabbing 11 rebounds, handing out two assists, and snatching two steals while playing generally very solid defense.  (No one on Iowa's team had much success slowing down Georges Niang, but Woodbury probably had the most success.)  Woodbury still has considerable room for improvement, but games like this give us a much better glimpse of his potential to be a difference-maker.
  • Unfortunately, Woodbury's Sioux City compatriot, Zach McCabe, had his worst game of the season by far.  He went 0/7 from the field (including 0/4 from deep, despite getting some very good looks), grabbed 3 rebounds, and had 4 fouls.  I haven't seen any plus-minus stats from the game, but I have a hard time imagining that McCabe was anything but a big minus for Iowa on Friday night.  In general, McCabe has been one of the more pleasant surprises for Iowa this season, but Friday night was just a miserable, no good, very bad night for him.
  • Marble had 19 points, 3 rebounds, and 6 assists (to just one turnover), but his night is most likely to be remembered for his struggles from the free throw line.  He shot just 5/8 from the line, including that painful miss at the end of the game.  Marble's free throw shooting has become a full-blown issue at this point -- he's shooting .658 from the line so far this season and he's had costly misses late against both Villanova and Iowa State.  Marble's a much better foul shooter for his career, so we can only hope this is just an ugly slump for him, but Iowa can ill afford a player of his importance to be so ineffective at the free throw line.
  • It's a shame that Gesell is likely to remembered from those two missed free throws because he had a solid game up to that point.  He scored 11 points on 5/8 shooting, made one of Iowa's few three-pointers, and handed out six assists (including an assist on Iowa's last four made field goals in the game).
  • Georges Niang (24 points, 2 rebounds, 5 assists) and Melvin Ejim (22 points, 7 rebounds, 2 assists) were excellent for Iowa State; Niang carried the scoring load for Iowa State in the first half; every time Iowa threatened to blow the game open in that half, he seemed to have an answer to draw Iowa State back within a few buckets and he was particularly unstoppable in the low post.  Ejim had one of the quieter 22-point nights I can remember (it was a shock to look at the box score and see that he'd scored that many points), but he was effective.  Iowa State also got great production out of Dustin Hogue (12 points, 16 rebounds), who had the sort of physical presence down low that I wish Iowa had.
  • And yes, just to make a note about it: Iowa State, a team that typically goes to the free throw line pretty infrequently, went to the line 36 times in this game, while Iowa, a team that typically goes to the free throw line pretty frequently, went to the line 21 times in this game.  Personally, I didn't think a lot of the fouls called on Iowa were particularly bad calls, but if they were going to call them on that end, they also should have been calling them a bit more on the other end of the floor, too. That's home court advantage in major college basketball for you, though.
NEXT: Iowa has a week off before entertaining Arkansas-Pine Bluff next Sunday in their final non-conference game of the 2013-14 season.  There will be blood.